In 1965, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. organized a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to raise awareness and challenge segregation and inequality in the U.S. That march was one of the bloodiest civil rights events in the country. On the first day, police demanded the marches turn back and when they did not, they released dogs, sprayed frontlines with hoses, and beat them back until the crowd broke ranks. Two days later, the marchers returned to complete their march undaunted, ultimately joined by three times their original ranks. It was not until their third try on March 21st that nearly 25,000 people succeeded in reaching the courthouse in Montgomery. Among them was 8 year old Sheyann Webb and 9 year old Rachel West.
Second graders Webb and West had heard about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. from people around their neighborhood and events reported in the paper. On January 2, 1965, on her way to school, they noticed an interracial crowd forming outside of Brown’s Chapel AME. Unable to turn away, Webb followed them into what would become the first meeting of the civil right movement in Selma Alabama.
Rachel West’s parents were long time activists in the Civil Rights Movement. They often housed speakers and activists when they came to Selma or when they were hiding out from the police.
My father was the first to take in shelter for the civil rights workers; our home was called the second freedom house. We, my parents, I did, we influenced other project people to take in these people. (Eyes on the Prize interview transcripts)
West was moved by her interaction with all of the freedom fighters and the information she was able to pass on to those too afraid to join the movement. Her parents actively encouraged West to learn about the movement but had not expected her to become involved herself.
Webb’s mother was also an important touchstone for her intellectual development during the movement as well. Webb used to go home and ask her mother questions about civil rights to get a better understanding of the overarching issues facing black people in the U.S. Her mother would explain discrimination and inequality to her and try her best to encourage Sheyann to be a strong young girl. When Webb asked why her parents were not registered to vote her mother explained that they would lose their jobs without which they could also lose their home and the ability to feed and cloth their children.
Both of Webb’s parents encouraged her to stop attending civil rights meetings citing beatings, rape, lynching, and the burning down of their home in the night as possible repercussions. All of these things were common place in racially segregated N. America and it is the memory of them that makes it impossible for black people to see lynching metaphors as “jokes” the way so many white high school and college aged youth seem to think it is today. Sheyann also asked her parents to register to vote for her birthday, refusing to let fear win. They did. And she recalls that after the marches, they took her to the voting booth with them so that she would be a witness to the civic duty she had helped fight to ensure her community had equal access. The sense of voting pride would be echoed throughout the nation both in 1960s and again in 2008 when the country voted in its first black president.
Despite warnings from her parents, Webb refused to let go of the urge to organize alongside adults active in the movement. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to a local church in her neighborhood Webb and West determined to meet him. They pushed their way through the crowd and spoke to him directly before and then after the meeting:
Dr. King, he spoke to us, asked us how we were doing, and what did we want. And we said freedom . . .
. . .
And he asked us on the way out, were we going to march. And we said, we are going to march for our freedom. (interview)
Those moments cemented a relationship between the Reverend and the girls that helped keep them strengthened in the struggle to come.
Rachel West recalls also learning about the movement from both white and black civil rights leaders like Jonathan Daniels and Frank Sirocco. Daniels had been instrumental in registering people in Alabama to vote and had been shot by authorities for it. Sirocco, one of the first 4 white activists to join the struggle in Selma, saved West’s life when she had unwittingly walked right in front of a police officer hunting down civil rights activists.
Webb also used to ask male leaders in the movement, like Jesse Jackson, to walk her home to keep her safe. Because these men used their mediated male privilege to protect her, Webb was able to go to and from the meetings with a sense of safety other women and girls may not have had. (Though obviously, violence against black men was such that her sense of safety may have been largely false tho it was certainly safer than being a young girl alone on the road.) As such, she became the source of information about the civil right meetings and organizing for her local school and at home. Children and teachers throughout Clark School were galvanized by her stories and the movement grew.
My teachers would ask me questions when I used to go to school. They used to ask me questions because they were afraid to come to meetings and they knew that I was there . . . (ibid)
Webb and West presence helped strengthen civil rights organizers much older than her, including Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Their commitment to the cause at such a young age inspired others to keep fighting even in the face of reprisal and state sanctioned violence. Webb also strengthened marches that day and organizers at church meetings with her amazing singing voice. After their initial meeting with Dr. King, he would let them come up to the front and sit on his lap, often asking them to sing to inspire the congregation. One of the songs she often sang was “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around,” a song later made popular for mainstream audiences by Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
(In the video below, deaf students perform the song at Gallaudet University)
Rachel West also sang for civil rights leaders at these meetings. She recalls that the song she sung most often was a localized version of “Come by Here Lord.” :
Selma needs you Lord, come by here.Selma needs you Lord, come by here.Selma needs you Lord, come by here.
This song would later inspire the title of a book the girls collaborated on, discussed below.
Even though Webb was only 8 years old, she was not naive. Her parents warnings and the growing violence around her made her acutely aware of the price of civil disobedience. When she and West decided to participate in the March from Selma, Webb wrote her obituary just in case she did not make it back:
Sheyann Webb, 8 years, was killed today in Selma. She was one of Dr. King freedom fighters. She was a student at Clark School, Selma. Sheyann want all people to be free and happy. (CNN)
Like others, 8 year old Sheyann was willing to give up her life for equality.
(Sheyann Webb 8 knelt down on curb, Racehl West 9, standing behind her at the Edmond Petis Bridge the day of the first March)
On Sunday March 7, 1965, both girls joined the march despite having been forbade by their parents to participate. Asd they approached the bridge, fear got the best of Rachel and she ran away. Mrs. Margaret Moore, one of Sheyann’s black female school teachers, took Sheyann’s hand and vowed to stay with as they continued to march. This act of intergenerational feminist solidarity likely saved the Sheyann from being trampled when the police later beat down and drove the crowd back.
Webb remembers Moore’s words to this day:
Baby, Don’t be afraid. I know your young, but don’t be afraid. (Interview)
Those words held Webb together despite the growing urge to run. When the tear gas hit the crowd and she finally did run, prominent freedom fighter, Hosea Williams, scooped her up to carry her to safety but she told him to put her down and made it home safely on her own.
the experience that I had as a child crossing the Edmund Pettus (ph) Bridge, really made me understand what the movement was truly about. The picture of Bloody Sunday has never left my mind, neither my heart.(CNN)
Webb’s involvement in that first attempt to march was not unpunished. White school teachers and students harassed and threatened her regularly after the march. Other white people in her town also threatened her parents and their home if Webb did not stop participating in the movement.
West recalls her older sister being put in a sweatbox by the police just for being part of their family. Two of her other sisters were thrown in jail for helping out civil rights workers with the registration effort.
Despite the increasing threats and the toll it was taking on her school work, Webb determined to march again. Rachel West did as well. They were among the crowd on March 21st again joined by fellow feminist & civil rights advocate and teacher Mrs. Moore. (Dr. King had both women shuttled in a van for 50% of the march after learning Sheyann did not have permission from her parents to be there. It was an unfortunate act of patriarchy that prevented both women from doing what they had set out to do in order to “protect them.”)
Years later, Sheyann Web and Rachel West would collaborate with journalist Frank Sikora on a memoir of their experience as the youngest women in the civil rights movement in Alabama. The book was called Selma Lord Selma. It would later win book awards and be turned into a low budget Disney film starring Jurnee Smollet. Smollet would go on to star in the Great Debaters having been partially inspired by her role in Selma Lord Selma.
Sheyann Webb is currently the Coordinator of Student Activities at Alabama State University and Director of KEEP, a youth empowerment and education program for children 2-18, once again reminding us of the enduring commitment to education that is part of black social justice in N. America. She continues to give talks on the importance of youth involvement in social justice and her experiences as a youth in the civil rights movement to college campuses and other organizations.
Rachel West has largely staid out of the limelight.
- Sheyann Webb unattributed
- Rachel West unattributed
- The prayer on the bridge before the march unattributed
- the cover of Selma Lord Selma