Sheyann Webb Christburg was 8 years old, the youngest person on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She remembers the feeling of tear gas in her eyes, and she remembers running home when Rev. Hosea Williams, the civil rights leader, picked her up to carry her.
She remembers saying, “Put me down because you’re not running fast enough.”
That was Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers on the bridge with gas and clubs and dogs. It was 50 years ago Saturday. Christburg remembers it as the most traumatic day of her life.
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She was so shaken that she wrote her own obituary. “I wrote in my own childish way about how I wasn’t free,” she told NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker. “I kind of summarized it in two lines. Saying that blacks were not free, and if you’re not free you’re a slave.”
She also remembers meeting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. more than once at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. She would sit on his lap. She said she remembered how he “sparkled when he was in the presence of courageous people.”
“And it was a deep, embedded spirit that he exuberated in the hearts and souls of all of the people that where there,” she said. “Even from a child’s perspective, you could not only see that, but you could feel it.”
President Barack Obama will speak at the bridge on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary. A senior administration official said that he plans to talk about the unfinished work of the civil rights struggle.
Christburg echoed that theme. She said it was one reason she was so excited to see people much too young to remember Selma coming to mark the occasion.
“Racism is still at an all-time high, not only in Southern states, but all over the United States,” she said. “And I submit to you today that while we have progress — socially, economically and politically — we still have a long way to go.”
— Erin McClam