Background Essay: Sheyann Webb
One hundred years after the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting, many southern states skirted the law by administering tests designed to keep African Americans from registering. Those who tried to register were rejected and sometimes threatened or beaten. Without voting rights, African Americans had limited political power.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but the act did not address voting rights. In Selma, Alabama, most African Americans were still denied the right to vote, and Sheriff Jim Clark was known for his tough opposition to registering black voters. While 65 percent of the white population was registered to vote, less then one percent of the black population was registered.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leaders Conference (SCLC) targeted Selma in an effort to draw national attention to the demand for voting rights. Sheyann Webb was eight years old when she first heard Dr. King speak at a mass meeting at her church and decided, along with her nine-year-old friend Rachel West, to participate in a demonstration for voting rights.
African Americans who demonstrated in Selma faced fierce and often violent opposition. Although the SCLC practiced nonviolence, demonstrators were threatened and beaten for participating. Local police did not protect demonstrators; in fact, Sheriff Clark and his deputies often participated in the violence against African Americans. In one voting rights demonstration, a young black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a Selma police officer.
Webb's parents did not demonstrate and warned her against demonstrating. However, she was determined, and on Sunday, March 7, 1965, Webb joined a march from Selma to Montgomery, 54 miles away, to protest voting discrimination and the killing of Jackson. As the 600 marchers neared the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, the police ordered them to turn back. When the marchers didn't turn back, the police fired tear gas and beat them back with billy clubs. Over 60 marchers were injured during the protest. In national news coverage, the day became known was "Bloody Sunday."
Two days later, the demonstrators defied both Alabama's segregationist governor George Wallace and a federal court order to not march, and 2,000 people continued the protest.
When Governor Wallace refused to guarantee the safety of the demonstrators, President Johnson ordered in federal troops to protect them. Another march was organized, and on March 21, 3,200 people left Selma for Montgomery. By the time the marchers reached their destination four days later, they had been joined by protesters from across the country, and their numbers had swollen to 25,000. The marches drew national attention to the issue and helped garner support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.