SELMA, ALABAMA — On Sunday, tens of thousands of people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack on voting rights marchers known as Bloody Sunday. Some marched in solemn silence, some posed for selfies and celebrated with friends, and others linked armed and broke spontaneously into song. The masses included members of labor unions, activists with the Black Lives Matter movement, members of Congress, clergy of all faiths, and many of the marchers that crossed the bridge under very different circumstances 50 years ago.
Sheyann Webb Christburg was just 8 years old when she held her teacher’s hand and began walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, a day that ended in what she called the most traumatic experience of her life.
“I can remember vividly how frightened I was as that little girl, even though I was determined to be a part of it,” she told ThinkProgress. “But when we got midway across the bridge, I looked down and I saw hundreds of policemen with billy clubs, state troopers on horses, the dogs. My heart begun to beat really fast. When we refused to turn, they started beating people down, tear gas burst in the air, the horses trampled the crowd as if we weren’t even human beings.”
Tears running down her cheeks, Webb Christburg recounted how she ran for her life. When she reached her home, she went straight to her bedroom and, hands still shaking, began drafting her will. “I finally knew the true meaning of the song we always sung, ‘Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,’” she said.
Still, the experience didn’t deter her from further action. “You just couldn’t be in the midst of so many courageous people fighting for what they believed in, and not want to be a part of it,” she said. “I saw that a change was going to come, so I made up my mind to be a part of that movement.”
Webb Christburg, now an educator at Alabama State University, continues to march, advocate for civil rights, and tell her story, which has become the book and Disney film Selma, Lord, Selma.
Ceola Massey grew up in Marion, Alabama — where the murder of young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was the spark that inspired the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. As teenager, she threw herself into the movement for desegregation and equality, and suffered indignities that are fresh in her memory 50 years later.
“We were always protesting, marching, meeting, going into restaurants that wouldn’t serve us,” she told ThinkProgress. “They would call us [n-word]s and spit on the floor and tell us to get out. One day, I was coming home from school with a friend and we were walking on the sidewalk and a white guy was coming towards us, and we didn’t get off the sidewalk, so he punched me in the face.”
After the violent images from Bloody Sunday shocked the nation, President Lyndon Johnson sent in the National Guard to protect Massey, her mother, her brother, and their fellow activists in Selma, and on the third try they were able to complete their march to the state capitol in Montgomery.
“Some days I got tired, yes, but we young people didn’t mind much, because we were singing songs and had a glorious time,” she said. “I did it because I knew things had to change and I wanted to be treated like a human being. And you know what? We really did achieve something.”
Massey spoke to ThinkProgress at the edge of a police barricade that was set up around the Brown Chapel AME, where a service was held Sunday morning to honor the anniversary. As one of the original “foot soldiers” of the movement, she voiced frustration that tickets for the event were only given to visiting politicians and national figures like the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
“I was there, but they’re making me feel like what I did was in vain, even though I know it’s not in vain,” she said. “But you know, I’ll keep striving. Things have changed a little but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Selma foot soldier George Savage looks at the changes over the last 50 years, and is disappointed with much of what he sees. His hometown is deeply mired in poverty, with low wages and high unemployment. Many downtown stores and homes are empty and boarded up, while several predatory payday lenders are open for business.
“Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but economically, slavery continued,” Savage said. “If I’m working as hard as I can, but I’m not able to take care of my family, what does it do for my pride and dignity?”
Savage spoke at an event this week calling for a revival of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, a movement for economic justice that fizzled out after his assassination in 1968.
“Well, I heard Dr. King speak many times, but one phrase always stuck in my mind: No lie can live forever,” Savage said. “I hear a lot of lies about the economy these days, but I know we can lift up our voices against them.”