Sheyann Webb: A Story for First Grade
By Maggie Nolan Donovan
First grade teacher and SNCC veteran Maggie Donovan wrote this story about Sheyann Webb to introduce her students to the role of young people (like themselves) in the Civil Rights Movement.
Sheyann Webb was eight years old and a third-grader when she put on her “marching shoes.” As she walked to school one morning in January 1965 she happened on a meeting at the Brown Chapel AME Church that changed the direction of her days for the next few months. She stopped and stared across the street at the unusual bustle in front of the church on a weekday morning. People were gathered, talking in small groups, cars were parked in front and more cars were pulling up. Most surprising of all, some of the people clustered on the church steps were white. Something strange was going on. Sheyann was already late but she felt herself drawn across the street, up the steps and into the back of the church.
Once inside Sheyann sat in a back pew and listened to Hosea Williams, an aide to Martin Luther King, speaking to the crowd. The words that stayed with Sheyann were, “If you can’t vote, then you’re not free; and if you ain’t free, children, then you’re a slave.” Sheyann couldn’t stop thinking about that. She knew her great, great grandmommas had been slaves and she knew her parents didn’t vote. Sheyann was hours late for school. When she arrived, her teacher reprimanded her in front of her classmates both for her tardiness and for getting involved with the dangerous goings-on at Brown Chapel.
Sheyann stopped going to school that day. She became the only child to regularly attend daytime meetings at Brown Chapel. She went to rallies and marches. She talked her best friend, Rachel West, into going with her, though only after school. She argued with her parents. She questioned her mother, “Why are we second-class citizens? Why can’t we vote? Why, why, why?” Sheyann badgered her parents day after day. Sometimes her father got up and walked out of the room. Her mother listened, tried to answer her questions and considered long and hard what Sheyann was saying. Sheyann’s mother also explained some reality to her. Trying to register could cost Sheyann’s parents their jobs or get them kicked out of public housing. And Sheyann was facing a worse possibility. Going to demonstrations could get you hurt or even killed. Her mother told her that four little girls in Birmingham, about her age, had died in a church bombing. From the beginning Sheyann understood the danger in her actions and she was often afraid.
Hosea Williams asked Sheyann if she could sing. Soon she was up front leading hundreds of people singing Freedom Songs, like “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” Rachel started singing with her. Sheyann’s parents came to Brown Chapel in the evenings to hear her sing, but they would not march or register.
Sheyann and Rachel became special friends of Dr. King’s. He often played a game with them, asking, “What do you want?” They would reply, “Freedom.” Dr. King would say, “I can’t hear you,” and they would say “Freedom,” louder and louder until they were all shouting and all three were laughing. One day Dr. King asked them, “Do you young ladies have your marching shoes on?” They looked down at their feet uncertainly. Rachel lifted one shoe to show him. Each girl had only one pair of shoes. “They’ll do,” Dr. King said, “They’re just fine.”
Sheyann took part in many marches. She saw people all around her beaten, hit with clubs, shocked with cattle prods. She held tight to the hand of an adult marcher, Margaret Moore. She sang to gain courage; she prayed, but the fear haunted her dreams by night and her talks with Rachel by day. She was especially afraid of the horses the mounted police would ride into the crowd. Stronger than her fear were her conviction and determination. And she saw change in those around her. She witnessed the teachers march and saw her own teacher, Mrs. Bright, among the marchers. She saw her mother’s mix of fear and admiration when they talked. She overheard her mother defending her to her father when she was skipping school.
One night Sheyann stayed up late to polish her father’s shoes. She rubbed until her arm was sore and the worn leather showed her blurred reflection. A few days later her mother asked what she would like for her birthday on February 17. Her answer was swift and sure: “Register.” The next morning when Sheyann came downstairs for breakfast, both her parents were sitting in the kitchen. This was strange; her father had usually left for work before she was up. “Shey, you’re getting your birthday present a day early,” her Momma said. Shey walked between them and held their hands as they joined the long line to register. They stayed in line all day. White passersby sprayed Raid and disinfectant at them and held their noses. The courthouse closed before they reached the doors. They went home disappointed but not defeated. Their decision was made and Shey’s parents did finally register to vote.
Sheyann Webb marched twice across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The first time she was gassed and driven back with others, but the second time she crossed the bridge, triumphant. Dr. King sent the girls back to Selma from the Montgomery road, telling them they had marched enough. Sheyann told him, “My feet and legs may be tired, but my soul still feels like marchin’,” as she boarded a bus to return home.
Two people Sheyann knew and loved died in the struggle: Jonathan Daniels, a young white seminarian from New Hampshire who lived with Rachel’s family; and of course, her beloved Dr. King. Others who marched with her were killed, and most, Sheyann included, were insulted, threatened, gassed, beaten, or jailed. Sheyann registered to vote on her 18th birthday.