Fort McCoy News Feb. 12, 2016

Activist shares story for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Public Affairs Staff

No matter how often Sheyann Webb-Christburg shares the story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. influenced her life, she can never repay the debt she owes him, she told Fort McCoy community members at the post's Jan. 19 observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Webb-Christburg is a civil-rights activist, motivational speaker, and co-author of the book "Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days." She became involved in the civil-rights movement after meeting King when she was 8 and was the youngest participant in the historical first-attempted march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery now known as "Bloody Sunday."

"Celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was created so that those who did not know (him) would have an idea of an inkling of what he was able to accomplish in such a short life," Webb-Christburg said. "Dr. King gave me hope. He gave me a great sense of achievement, which motivated me to do something, to make a difference, even in spite of my being a poor child."

Photo 1
Sheyann Webb-Christburg shares her memories of time spent with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Fort McCoy observance of Martin Luther
King Jr. Day at the Staff Sgt. Todd R. Cornell Noncommissioned Officer Academy. Webb-Christburg, a native of Selma, Ala., recalled her
involvement with King during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
by Scott T. Sturkol

Webb-Christburg said she remembers meeting King for the first time outside of Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma. King and his colleagues arrived at the church for a meeting, and he stopped to talk to Webb-Christburg and her best friend, Rachel West. When it was time for him to go inside for the meeting, he invited the two girls to come inside with him and sit in two chairs near him.

"The first question that he asked (was) 'What do you little girls want?'" Webb Christburg said. "And my best friend Rachel and I looked at each other, not knowing how to respond to that question. He said, 'Now, when I ask you little girls what do you want, I want you to say freedom.'

"The next question he asked us was 'Now, when do you little girls want it?' And Rachel and I looked at each other, not knowing how to respond to that question. 'Now, when I ask you little girls when do you want it, I want you to say' — what?" she asked, pausing to let the audience answer the question.

"Now," the audience responded.

Webb-Christburg said that after the meeting, she couldn't wait to tell her parents about King and his message. But her parents warned her to stay away from him and the activists involved in the civil-rights movement.

"My parents, like so many others, were very afraid to be a part of that movement or that struggle," Webb-Christburg said. "But I didn't quite understand that, because I saw someone who was kind, someone who had become very special to me."

She said she couldn't wait to go back, despite what her parents had told her, and she slipped out to attend mass meetings, particularly when King was visiting Selma. His speeches, focusing on the struggles and challenges that black people faced, struck a chord with her.

"Many things I didn't quite understand, but I did know the difference between right and wrong and black and white," she said. She'd seen the "for coloreds" and "for whites" signs growing up and asked her parents why she couldn't go to places that others could.

"As I listened to Dr. King speak on that particular night, I could relate (his speech) to some of the questions I'd asked my parents," Webb-Christburg said.

The most traumatic memory of her childhood was the day the activists first attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, she said, and the attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Photo 2
Civil-rights activist Sheyann Webb-Christburg speaks
to Fort McCoy community members during the Jan. 19
observance for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Photo by
Scott T. Sturkol

"My parents had warned me over and over and over again about not participating in that march," Webb-Christburg said.
"I remember writing a note to them, trying to explain to them why I really had to be on that march." She left the note on the washing machine and went alone to Brown Chapel, because her friend Rachel had told her she wouldn't march because she was scared.

"As (the marchers) were walking out of the church, passing me, many of them were trying to discourage me, but I started following them," she said.

Webb-Christburg said she joined teacher Margaret Moore, who at first also tried to send her home, but took her hand to march beside her. The marchers had been told to look straight ahead and not to be distracted by insults, threats, or objects lobbed at them by white residents objecting to the march.

"But me being that little girl, I was looking around, watching what was going on," Webb-Christburg said. "I saw hundreds of policemen with tear-gas masks (and) billy clubs, hundreds of state troopers on horses. I saw the dogs. And naturally, (I was) very frightened. But I was determined to stay there in (the marchers') midst."

After they'd paused to pray, the marchers were asked by the police to turn around. When they didn't, state troopers and policemen attacked the marchers as they crossed the county line. Webb-Christburg described what she'd witnessed on the bridge.

"People had begun to be beaten down to the ground, as if they weren't human beings," she said. "The dogs and the horses had begun to push their way into the crowd, just trampling over people." Many of the people who turned to flee were bleeding or ended up crawling.

She also turned and ran, she said. The Rev. Hosea Williams picked her up to carry her to safety. "My legs were still galloping in his arms," she said. "I turned to him, and I said to him … 'Put me down because you're not running fast enough.'"

She said she remembered passing houses on the way back to her own and seeing people standing in their doorways with sad faces. "By the time I reached home, my parents were standing in their door, and my dad had his shotgun," Webb-Christburg said. She ran upstairs to hide in her room, crying and writing down what she wanted for funeral arrangements.

She said that while she was writing, she remembered the lyrics to a gospel, "Oh Freedom," they'd sung during meetings: "And before I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free."

"That is the day that I truly understood what that song really meant," she said.

More than 50 years later, Webb-Christburg said, she often questions how far Americans have come as a people. "The struggle is not over," she said. "Racism still rears its head in an attempt to disarm people of their identity and respect as human beings."

She said she doesn't have the answer to the problems the country still faces, but she encourages people to talk to one another and respect each other's opinions.

"It is so important that each of us individually make a contribution to our communities and this society," she said. "There's much work to be done, and we have to start somewhere."

Dale Gibson with the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center said she thought Webb-Christburg was a wonderful speaker. She said it was great to hear a personal, one-on-one story about how King influenced individuals involved in the civil-rights movement.

Staff Sgt. Jvona Harrell with the Staff Sgt. Todd R. Cornell Noncommissioned Officer Academy said she thought Webb-Christburg was very motivational. "It's great to have someone instill the purpose of Martin Luther King Jr. Day," she said.

For more information about observances at Fort McCoy, contact the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-6153.