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Meeting the Spark
Being awoken by Mom banging on the door is never a fun way to start off your morning.
“Get up! You can’t be late to school again!” she yells. Reluctantly, I roll out of bed and pull on a simple shirt and skirt from the broken drawer in my tiny closet. The freezing water jolts me awake as I splash my face with water and brush my teeth. My siblings are already eating breakfast at our small cramped table as I walk down the stairs. I pour myself a bowl of cereal and eat it as quickly as I can before Mom ushers us all out the door. She makes us all give her a kiss while we grab our books and walk out the door. While my brother and sister turn left for a shortcut to school, I continue on straight. The books weight my arms down as I walk along the sidewalk. My food catches on some uneven pavement and I tumble down. Standing and picking up my books, I continue my trudge to school. As I turn the corner, I forget about the weight of the books when I see my best friend, Rachel, leaning against a tree. She is dressed in a plaid dress and long white sleeves. She has to wear a uniform because she goes to a fancy Catholic school, which is on the way to my school. We meet here every day to walk together, and talking with her always makes my day more special.
“Hey, Sheyann!”, she calls out, “What took you so long?”
“I’m not that late!” I laugh, “Anyway, I stayed up until nine o’clock working on my book report.”
“Wow, you were up late” Rachel mused, “Did you finish?”
“Barely, I had trouble with the climax, but I think I did alright.”
“I’m sure you did fine,” she says with a smile. We walk in a happy silence for a few minutes, listening to the birds chirping as they wake up to start their day. The chilly breeze shake the trees and make us wrap our jackets more tightly around ourselves. The sun peeks out behind the fluffy white clouds, and the bees buzz around the the vibrant wildflowers. Birds scour the grass for the worm that will be their breakfast. Everything here is at peace, but while I am looking around, something seems different. As we walked down the street, the sounds changed. Instead of birds chirping, we hear loud chatter. Instead of wind through the trees, we hear the shuffled movements of footsteps that belong to a large crowd.
Turning the corner, we stop in our tracks. Before us is a scene so strange to me that I don’t really know what to call it. Right across the street from us, in front of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, a group mingle together. This wouldn’t have been surprising, except this congregation was filled with both black and white people. Not only were they together, but they were being kind and friendly to each other. I try to think back to when I have seen white and black people working together. Since there are not a lot of white people in my neighborhood, I don’t see them very often. I do remember one time, I saw a black woman working for a white woman. That is common, but I have never seen anything like the group in front of me now. I search my memory for anything I have seen before that looks like the meeting in front of me, but I come up blank. White people stay on their side of town, and we stay on ours. But these people before me are greeting each other as equals. I see a group of white and black women laughing with each other. Over there are two men of different colors shaking hands and smiling. What is going on? I have heard about how white people were bad. I have heard about how they are rude to us, just because we look different. But those people across the street look so kind. The peace between those people over there, it seemed kind of beautiful. I had to find out more!
“Rachel,” I say quickly, “What do you say to going over there and seeing what those people are up to?”
Rachel looks at the group of people, and back at me.
“No, I have to get to school. I suggest you do the same, but if you decide to check them out, will you tell me about it later?”
“Of course,” I say, my eyes still fixed on the group, “I’ll see you this afternoon”
We part ways as I walk to the end of the sidewalk and cross the street. Slowly, I approach the group of people. My stomach tightens with nervousness about what I am walking into, but my curiosity keeps me moving forward. I spot one of my neighbors on the other side of the crowd and decide to go over to him. Maybe he will know what is going on. I move through the sea of people to get through to the other side. When I am a few feet away, I trip on a rock and bump into a man. He caught my arm before I could fall.
“Well, watch where you are going little lady,” He says with a smile. “Are you alright?”
I look up at him and gasp. This man who just saved me from falling does not have the familiar dark face that I know but has light skin. His brown eyes seemed to sparkle, and his smile stretched from both of his big ears. He looked to be about 25 or 26, judging by the style of his light brown hair. His pointed chin seemed to make his grin more inviting as he looked down his long nose at me.
“Oh, I’m fine”, I say politely. Why did this man just keep me from tripping? My confusion about these strange people keeps growing. I look forward, trying to find my neighbor in the crowd again, but I have lost him. Now what am I going to do? Who can answer my questions about what is going on? I look at the man who I just bumped into. He smiles at me. “What is a young lady such as yourself doing here?” he asks. This man seems nice enough, so I decide to take this opportunity to get some answers.
“I saw y’all from across the street. I haven't really seen a group like this before, so I wanted to see what all this is about. What is going on?” I ask, and then quickly add, “And who are you?”.
“Well, my name is Jonathan Daniels. I am a minister and a student. As to what is going on here,” he looks at me again with a smile, “This is a civil rights meeting. The way the law is preventing colored people from voting is unjust, and someone needs to step up and do something about it. That is what we are here for. We want to make change happen for the good of the people.”
I had heard about how hard it was for my people to vote. My teacher, Mrs. Moore, would sometimes talk about it in class, but very briefly. I think she said registering to vote was dangerous because if people found out, they could make you lose your job. When I asked my parents about it, they told me not to bring it up again and sent me to my room. I have always liked learning about what was going on in our community in school, but no one really wants to talk about it with me.
“Can you tell me more?” I ask hopefully.
He looks at me again, but instead of a smile, his eyes are knit together as if he is thinking. He looks towards the church for a moment, and then his smile returns as he looks back at us.
“How about this.” He says, “Why don’t you sit in on the meeting? I think that it will teach you more than I can now. It should be starting any minute now anyway. You can sit with me if you like. What is your name?”
“I am Sheyann” I respond back eagerly.
“Alright, well, I will see you inside then,” He says before turning towards the doors of the church and walking inside.
I grin to myself. I was just invited to join these people in their meeting! I feel as though I am beginning to set foot in something big. I walk into the church with everyone else, ready to see what this civil rights thing is all about.
I look around for my new friend Mr. Daniels, but I can’t see him. I decide to take a seat in an empty row towards the back. A few people give me funny looks as they walk by and whisper to each other about how a little girl shouldn’t be here. Even with their stares, they don’t make me uncomfortable. I am too excited to let them bother me, and since I was invited by Mr. Daniels, I feel like I belong. I watch as a man stands at the front of the stage.
“Good Morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming today. I know it must have been difficult for you coming here, but I assure you, with persistence and hard work, we will not be ignored.”
The crowd cheers, and I beam. I feel important, special. He continues to talk about the injustice in our area and the inequality, as well as going over plans for peaceful protest, and calling out other areas of injustice. The people around me cling to his words, letting out whoops and shouts whenever they agreed with him. This man was talking about serious issues that I never hear about in school. This is real, and I love it. An emptiness I never knew was there in my soul, begins to fill. I want to be more. I want to be part of something bigger than I am. The energy in the room is exhilarating. As I look at the people around me, I can see in their faces the same excitement I feel. What they are doing is dangerous. They have all of the odds against them. Or, we had all the odds against us. I don’t understand why people would try to stop us when we have such a true cause. I know that we may not succeed, but I want to fight for our rights. I need to fight for our rights. I have to be part of this. No matter what it takes, I want to be a freedom fighter.
After the meeting gets over, I walk around that church with a new light in my eyes. All the adults see me and smile. I see Mr. Daniels talking to some other people, so I decide to walk over to them.
“Hey, Sheyann, how did you like the meeting? Did you get the information you needed?”
“Mhmm! And I think I want to be a freedom fighter too!” I say happily.
The adults looked at each other with uncertainty. One of them said, “Sweetheart, do you understand what it means to be a freedom fighter?”
“Well, I just learned about y’all today, but I want to learn more and be part of your group,”
The adults look at each other with concern, but Jonathan drops down on one knee, so we are at eye level.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” he tells me, “and if you want to be a freedom fighter, then be one. Just make sure you get as much information as possible before you commit to anything major, and be careful. This is not simple stuff. Being a freedom fighter right now can be very dangerous.”
He stands back up to the height of the adults. Another one starts up a new conversation.
“So, I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is coming in a few days.”
“Yes. I heard that too. I think he is exactly what we need to move to the next level with our protests”
“He has done so many amazing things already, like talking with the president and really putting everything on the line to stand up for our cause. If there is anyone who can win us the right to vote, it is that man.”
This conversation seems so interesting, I don’t ever want to leave, but then, out of nowhere, Rachel appears and grabs my arm to get my attention.
“Sheyann, Look!” she said, pointing at a clock on the wall. It was four o’clock! I have been in that meeting all day, and completely missed school! Since both of our schools get out at three, we are usually home around three-thirty. We had to get home right now, or else our parents might wonder what happened to us.
“Goodbye, Mr. Daniels!” I say, before grabbing my books and rushing out the door. I cross the street and run down the sidewalk and all the way home. I get home at four fifteen, and instead of using the front door, I go through the side gate and in the back door so I can sneak into my room. I slowly open the back door and carefully close it, being sure not to make a sound. I turn and take careful steps towards the stairs. One. Two. Three. All I must do is make it past the kitchen door and up to my room. Four. Five. In three more steps, I will have reached the stairs. I look through the crack in the kitchen door. There is Mom, beginning to start up dinner. At the table sits Dad, who seems to be taking care of the bills. I make sure Mom is looking down at the stove before I try to sneak past the door. Six. Seven. I have one foot on the first step when I hear “SHEYANN!”. I stop dead in my tracks.
“Come in here.”
I reluctantly turn around and slowly come into the kitchen. Mom has a harsh look on her face. Dad looks up from his work.
“We got a call today,” Mom says, “The school called us today. They said that you never showed up to class. You know that it is unacceptable to skip school. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“We, um, I got a little sidetracked on the way to school. I lost track of the time” I mumble.
“Lost track of the time?!” Mom fumes, “How could you be so careless? Haven't I raised you to be more responsible?”
“Let’s listen to what she has to say,” Father says to Mom. He then looks at me, “Sheyann, what do you mean sidetracked? Where did you go?”
“Well, we were on our way to school. We were walking by Brown Chapel A.M.E.Church. There was this group of people out front. It was weird because it had both white and black people. I decided to go look. So, I went over to check it out. It was a freedom fighter meeting. I was invited in and we got to listen to what they were saying. I think we need to stand up for our rights. We deserve to have a voice.” I tell them.
“You went to a civil rights activist meeting?” Asks Dad.
“Yeah, we went to a meeting. I was curious, I had only planned to stay a few minutes.”
“Sheyann, I don’t want you to get involved in these freedom fighter meetings. Those people will only bring us trouble, do you hear? Things are fine as they are. Yes, it is not easy, but the right thing will always prevail in the end. Right now, we just need to be concerned about our family and our home. Yes. Voting would be nice, but our job is more important. There have been many stories of those of us who register to vote, and are fired the next day. I want to be able to provide for the two of you. I know you are getting older, but this is not the right choice.” Dad tells me, “Now I don’t want to hear of you going to any more of these meetings, understood?”
“I understand”, I say slowly, “but...”
“No buts!” Mother says, ‘Go to your room”
“Alright,” I say. I turn on my heel and head up to my room. I know my father told me to stay away from the freedom fighter meetings, but how can I leave behind that feeling of purpose that I felt at the meeting? I go to sleep that night thinking about the words Jonathan Daniels said to me. He told me to find as much information as I can about being a freedom fighter before I completely made up my mind. Tomorrow I will have to go back to school. Maybe I can find more information about civil rights there. Who could I ask? I do have one teacher in mind as I drift off to sleep. I also consider the second warning I was given. Be careful.
The next morning, I meet Rachel by our tree and tell her everything about what happened. She listens to my every word, completely absorbed by my little adventure.
“A freedom fighter meeting! Oh, I should have known. My parents have been talking about going to those for a while. I’ll try to ask them about it tonight. How did your parents feel about you missing school?”
I tell her about how upset my mother got and how my father banned me from going to any more meetings. I tell her how I had to go to my room without dinner. She offers me some of her lunch if I am hungry, but I politely refuse.
“So, you aren’t going to any more meetings?” asks Rachel.
“No,” I say, “No, I love my parents, but I have to go to those meetings. I’ll just have to figure out a way to go without them knowing.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? What are they going to do if they find out?”
“I just don't know any other way. I want to be part of what that meeting was talking about yesterday. I am just going to try to find out as much as possible. If I get in trouble, I get in trouble. But I will try to be careful”
“What are we going to do now?”
“I think we should just take things one step at a time. We are small, but I think we can make a difference, right?”
We walk in silence for a few minutes. We pass the church and Rachel heads to school. I must continue my walk alone.
I get to school five minutes early. All my classmates ask me where I was yesterday, but I really didn’t want to explain to every single person where I went, so I keep my answers very vague. In class, I go up to my teacher Mrs. Moore and told her why I was absent yesterday. She seemed very interested when I told her I was at a freedom fighter meeting.
“What made you decide to go over to that meeting, Sheyann?”
“The group looked different and it sparked my interest. Can you tell me more about what is going on right now? I want to learn about activism. Can you teach me?”
Mrs. Moore looks at me for a long moment. Then she tells me, “I need to see you after school to discuss the work you missed. I have called your parents telling them that I will be keeping you late. Perhaps we will be able to talk about other things if you are prepared for that. One more thing, try not to discuss the meeting with your other classmates. I don’t want you to get in any more trouble, alright?”
“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Moore,” I say, “I really appreciate it.”
I take my seat as the other kids come into class. Mrs. Moore starts off the class just like any other day, but today is in no way normal for me. I am so excited about getting more information that I have a tough time focusing. My mind drifts to the meeting yesterday I remember how happy I was, with all those people who looked so different but seemed so united by their purpose. And now I can learn more about what that purpose is! Mrs. Moore can tell me more about what is really happening in the world right now! What if Mrs. Moore is a freedom fighter in disguise? Rachel said her parents knew about these civil rights activists. I wonder if…
I snap back to attention. Mrs. Moore and the entire class are looking at me. I must have been asked a question while I was zoning out.
“Yes, Mrs. Moore?” I ask sheepishly.
“I asked you what the answer of six times three is.”
“Oh,’ I say, as I flip to my multiplication chart. “Is it 18?”
“Yes, very good. Only next time, only look at your chart as a last resort, alright?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I say quietly.
I’m able to pay more attention in class. I copy down all our spelling words, and I made sure to ask questions about our math homework. When the bell rings, everyone packed up and left class except me. Mrs. Moore signaled me to come up to her desk and hands me a stack of papers.
“Since you missed the entire day yesterday, I have a lot of extra homework for you. We went over a lot of this today, but there are instructions on how to do it in the homework if you forget. I want you to work on this tonight, and turn it in tomorrow. Do you have any questions?”
Although the amount of homework was a bit overwhelming, the material seemed easy enough.
“No, Ma’am,” I say.
“Great. So, if you don’t have any questions, I will see you tomorrow then.” She looks away from me and down at some worksheets and began grading them.
“Wait, Mrs. Moore,” I say, “I have a question, but it is not about the homework.”
She looks up from her paper and smiles. “Ah, yes. You wanted to know more about the civil rights movement happening right now, huh?”
“Yes. My parents won’t tell me anything, and we both want to learn more about what it is about.” I say.
“Well, first, I would like to tell you that I do believe that we deserve quality in our voting rights. Other people may have different viewpoints, and even if you don't agree with them, you need to respect and listen to them. If your parents don’t approve of you going to the meetings, then I do not think you should go. However, I do think that it is important for you to know what is going on in the world right now.”
I take a seat in the front row and listen eagerly to what she is saying.
“Right, so a person who is a freedom fighter is a person who campaigns or fights for political or social change. A civil rights activist is someone who fights to secure equal opportunities to groups in the minority. Basically, right now it is very difficult for people of color to vote.”
She then explained to me about voting registration. How voting registration offices were only open once every other week, and how you would have to miss work to go over there. Those who worked for a white employer had a very hard time missing work because if they did not have permission to leave, they could be fired just for missing one day.
“Most white employers did not give permission to leave work either because if word got out that they let someone leave, or they did not fire them, the employers would most likely be driven out of business through the White Citizens Council.”
“The Citizens Council are the people who think that we are less than them, and they want to keep us from our rights and will use almost any means necessary to keep us separate, right?” I ask.
“Pretty much. They are a group of people who don’t believe we deserve to be heard, and they have become very violent lately, to ensure we don't have a voice. However, there will always be people to stand in the way of change. We have to make sure we do not let them triumph over us, but we also need to be careful.”
She looks at me seriously before moving on.
“Now, on some registration days, officers will hang around the office to intimidate those of us trying to vote. They might arrest you on some phony charge just to keep you from going into the building. If you make it into the building, the clerks usually make fun of you for being there”
She told us how people then had to fill out a four-page long application form, which was basically there just to intimidate voters more.
“You had to fill the entire thing our truthfully, or you will be under penalty of perjury. The worst part about that for is that it is usually passed on to groups like the White Citizens Council and KKK, so now these people who are not afraid to kill you have your personal information.”
She also explained that in some counties, in order to register you had to have someone vouch that you were fit to vote.
“This means that even if you pass all of the tests, you still might not be accepted just because no one can vouch for you. In communities where there are no colored voters, it was basically impossible to register
“You are also required to take a literacy test. Now, there are several versions out there, so that everyone can be assigned one at random to make it impossible to cheat. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever a colored person tries to register they receive the hardest version of the test.
“Then your test and application were reviewed by three members of the Board of Registrars. They had to decide if you were qualified to vote. It is up to them to decide whether you pass.
“Your name is also published in the paper to let your employers and bankers and everyone else know what you were trying to do. The entire process was meant to intimidate you to into withdrawing your application. And with the WCC having your information, they would also try to make you give up, using any means necessary.”
We cling to her every word. Since Mom and Dad refuse to register, this is the first time I am hearing all the difficulties there are to vote.
“The civil rights activists just want registration to vote to be equal for both black and white people. We should not have to fear for our lives just to have a voice in this country. That is what we are fighting for. Our freedom of speech. Our right to live.”
I sit in silence for a few minutes, processing all the information I just heard. I really couldn’t believe it. The system could not be that unfair, could it? Part of me is shocked that the world is really like that.
“Now, I know this information is hard for you to process,” Mrs. Moore says carefully, “So I want you to go home, do your work, and get some rest. Alright?”
“Yes Mrs. Moore,” I say.
I grab my things and walk out the door. As I walk back home, the weight of what I learned truly sets in. I was told to be careful, but I was never told why. With groups like the WCC and KKK out there, I know the reason. And not to mention everyone working with the law to ensure we fail.
I walk home in silence. Mom asks why what my teacher talked to me about, and I tell her about my homework, and she smiles at me when get started on it at the kitchen table. With the amount of work I have been assigned, I don't really have the energy to think about what she told me. I work late into the night on my homework, partly because Mom made me, but mostly because I didn’t want to let Mrs. Moore down. When I finally finish, I fall right into bed. Exhausted.
The next morning, on the way to school, I think about the dangers of what was going on for our people. I think I understand what adults go through, and it is terrifying. Do I really want to get involved in that? I remember my parents telling me to stay out of it. I think they want me to stay safe. That would be easy, to just let it go and let other grownups handle it. It is what I should do.
I see Rachel standing by our tree, but instead of speeding up to see her, I slow down. I need more time to think. I should let the adults handle it. They are bigger and smarter and older than me. Then I think about what Jonathan Daniels told me. I can do anything I can set my mind to. Maybe I am tiny, but maybe my size doesn’t define me. Maybe I can make an impact by just adding to the number of people who want to make a difference. The things that are going on, they are affecting my parents, my friends, everyone I know. I suppose it will even affect me someday. Maybe the adults can handle it, and I can stand by, but I want to be part of this. I want to be involved in something, and I feel a passion for this. We deserve to be treated the same way as anyone else. No matter what we look like or where we come from. I want to stand up for what is right.
I walk over to Rachel. She looks happy to see me, but her expression turns from joy to confusion as she looks at my tired face.
“Did you have a lot of homework from missing school?” She asks me.
“Yeah, but I was able to finish it,” I say vaguely.
“Well, that's good.” She says, “Sheyann, what’s wrong? You look, different”
“Rachel, you know how not very many black people are able to vote?”
Well, Mrs. Moore, my teacher, sort of told me why that is, and the challenges adults face are really scary.”
We walk in silence for about a minute before Rachel asks, “Can you tell me what Mrs. Moore told you?”
I explain everything I can to her. About the different tests and the citizen's council and the intimidation black people face just because of their color. I speak quietly, and I watch Rachel listen to me. The frown on her face seems to get deeper the more that I talk. When I finish, she stays quiet for a little while.
“So, what do you think?” I ask finally.
“I think...” She pauses for a moment, “I don’t know what do think. What you just told me is unfair and terrible. And really dangerous I think. My parents have told me a little bit about what is going on, but they have never made it sound so scary. But I also don't want to leave it completely... alone. You know?”
“I think I know exactly how you feel. I mean, this might not end super well. But, if we don’t like, stand up, then all the change will happen without us.” I am so happy she came to a similar conclusion as me that I begin to talk faster and faster, “I don’t think we are too young to be part of this. I mean, we may not be able to do all the stuff the grownups do, but we can still be part of it! And this is a big movement and it means something important. I don’t know if it will be fun, but I don’t think we will regret doing this.”
I say goodbye to her at the church and go to school. I only have a couple minutes to spare, so I walk straight to class. Once I turn in my homework, the day continues as normal. We learn about math and literature. Science and history. During our history segment, after talking about our founding fathers, Mrs. Moore takes the conversation in a new direction.
“So, I don’t know if you have heard, but there have been certain Civil rights meetings going on in town. Now, tomorrow, a very special person is coming. His name is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and he is fighting for people like you and me to have more equal rights. Just letting you guys know in case someone brings it up in the next few days. Now, it is time for silent reading. Go grab one of the books off the shelf and log how many pages you get through.”
I walk over and grab a random book from our small class library. I flip to the first page and begin reading. I try to focus on the words, but my mind drifts somewhere else. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I think I have heard that name before. But where? Oh yes! Right before we had to leave the meeting a few days ago, those adults mentioned him. I try to remember what they were talking about. Something about meeting with the president and working for our cause. He sounds like a really important guy, and he is coming here! Mrs. Moore said he was coming tomorrow, which is Saturday. I’ll have to get away from home, so I can meet him.
The bell rings, but like yesterday, I sit in my seat and wait for my classmates to leave.
Mrs. Moore notices me sitting by myself from across the room and smiles.
“Come here Sheyann. What questions do you have for me today?”
Walking over, I say, ‘I was wondering if you could tell me more about the man who is coming tomorrow?”
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Why certainly. He has been a leader for our civil rights movement for about ten years. Instead of leading violent protests like others have, he leads more peaceful protests. That means that instead of yelling in the streets, he would lead people to just march without starting a fight. He has also made some amazing speeches that have moved a lot of people. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The Nobel Peace prize is basically recognition for someone's outstanding achievements in certain areas which include promoting world peace. I think he is going to help organize a march here in Selma.”
“Where is he going to be?” I ask.
“Well, I do not know for sure.” Mrs. Moore says, “But I think he is going to arrive at Brown Chapel A.M.E.Church”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Moore,” I say, looking at the clock. If we want to make it home on time, we need to leave now.
“Have a safe walk home you two, and don’t forget your homework.”
I leave her class and begin the journey home. When I reach the church and meet up with Rachel, I tell her about how Martin Luther King Jr. is coming tomorrow.
“So, what's the plan?’ She asks me.
“Do you want to meet him?”
“Yeah! Don’t you?”
“Yeah, of course. I just don’t know how Mom is going to let me out of the house because of what happened with the meeting.”
“Well, what about this,” she says, ‘We could both do our homework tonight. Make sure you are finished at around six. Then I could ask mom if she will let me play with you tomorrow. She could call your parents and then we can play on the lawn of the church like always. Would that work?”
“That sounds perfect!” I cry. “I can’t wait!”
Alright, just make sure you have your homework done. I doubt your parents will let you go if you are not finished.”
“Got it. Homework is done by six. No problem.”
We walk and laugh and talk to each other all the way home. When I walk through the door, I greet my parents and immediately start my homework. The clock reads 4:30, and I keep checking on it to see how much time has passed. I try to focus on my math and reading assignments. Finally, after my last science worksheet, I am finished with my work. The clock reads 5:50. I made it with ten minutes to spare. I pull out a coloring sheet and begin drawing another picture for the fridge. Finally, at 6:02, our phone rings. I hear Mom yell that she is coming as she runs into the kitchen.
“Hello?” She says as she picks up the phone. “Oh, Mrs. West! How are you? Oh, I’m doing just fine.”
She smiles into the phone. That is a good sign. She listens to Mrs. West for a while, until she says, “Can Sheyann play with Rachel tomorrow? Um, well…”
She looks at me for a minute. I look hopefully at her with a big smile on my face.
“Well, she seems to be done with her homework, so I don’t see why not. … alright. Sounds good. Talk to you soon...goodbye”.
I walk over to Mom as she hangs up the phone and give her a hug.
“Thank you, Mom.”
“You’re welcome. Now go set the table. Dinner should be ready in five minutes”
Dinner is delicious. I shower and pick out a fun outfit for tomorrow. I go to bed and dream about what this famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be like.
I wake up to Mom calling me down for breakfast. I get dressed and go downstairs.
“My! You look nice today. I thought you were just going to see Rachel.”
‘I am, Mom. I was just feeling like looking good today”
“Alright. Well, once you are done with breakfast and take care of your dishes, you may go”
I eat quickly and hurry to clean my plate and fork. Once they are on the drying rack, I head out the door. Rachel is waiting for me as usual. We walk to the church, excited to see all the people there and our new idol. However, when we turn the corner, I am shocked to see that there is no one there.
“Sheyann,” Rachel says slowly, “Did you ever ask when Mr. King was going to arrive?”
“Oh, I guess I forgot about that part,” I say, “Do you want to play until someone shows up?”
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” Rachel says happily.
We walk over to the lawn in front of the church. We play some of our favorite games, like who can do the most cartwheels in a row, or pretend house. We had just finished making little figures out of sticks from one of the trees when the first car showed up.
It was a lot bigger and fancier than most of the cars we usually see in our neighborhood. Then another car came, and more and more. Until the parking lot was practically filled with fancy cars. No one had these types of cars last time we were here.
“Are you sure we are in the right place?” Rachel asks me.
“I hope so,” I reply.
We see two men getting out of one of the beautiful cars near up. When people saw these two men, they instantly walked over and gathered around them.
“Let’s go,” Rachel tells me. We push through the circle of people until we see the two black men in the middle. One of them was putting a suit coat jacket on the other. The man who was getting the suit jacket put on him was medium height, with beautiful, kind eyes and kinky hair. When the man who was holding the suit jacket saw us, he immediately turned and asked us, “Do you girls know who this man is?”
“No,” We said together. We didn’t know who anyone here was.
“This is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” The man said to us.
Dr. King looked at us and smiled. Instead of speaking to the large crowd in front of him, he began talking with us instead.
“Hello ladies, what are your names?” He had a deep, beautiful voice that was both chilling and trustworthy.
“I’m Sheyann, this is Rachel”
“Hello,” Rachel says.
“How old are you two?” He asks kindly.
“Nine years old, sir,” Rachel says.
“I am eight!” I say right after Rachel.
“So what grade does that put you in?”
“We are both in third grade, but we go to different schools,” Rachel tells him.
“Are you two from around here?”
“Yup, my house is three blocks down that way,” I say as I point down the street.
“Mine is close to the church” Rachel adds.
He keeps talking to us, asking us questions about ourselves and why we were here today, and listening to what we had to say. Could this man, who our teacher spoke so highly of and who has spoken to the president of the United States, really be talking to us? We are just two kids, and there are a ton of adults waiting patiently and watching us. But this man is talking to us. I can see why Mrs. Moore spoke of him in such high regard, for the man in front of us is truly great. Finally, the people gathered around begin to walk around to the back door of the church.
“Where are those people going?” I ask Dr. King.
“Well, we are going to have a strategy meeting so that this town can have a bigger part in the movement” He replies.
The man that helped put Dr. King’s suit coat jacket turns to us and says, “You little girls can go on and play now because we’re about to have a meeting…”
“No”, Dr. King said firmly, “They want to come in. They can come in.”
He took us by the hand, and together we all walked into the room. The meeting hadn’t started yet, but instead of leaving us to go talk to the other adults, he stayed. He seemed really interested in our lives and us as people. His concern for us, and our family, our struggles, it was amazing. Seeing this man, I feel like Santa has come to town.
“Alright, well, we are going to start the meeting now. Although you are welcome to stay, it might be a bit boring for you two. However, we are going to be having more of a meeting for all of the freedom fighters in town later tonight.”
I look at Rachel. “We’ll be there,” She tells him. We walk out of the building with huge smiles on our faces.
“He was amazing,” I say to Rachel.
“I think I have heard his speeches on my radio before. My parents like to listen to him. They should be coming tonight, so you can sit with us if you like. “
“That would be great,” I say. We spend the rest of the day playing and talking about Dr. King. That evening, Rachel’s parents came. They showed up with a small group of white people in tow. One of them was Jonathan Daniels.
“Hey Rachel, what are those people doing with your parents?”
“Oh, well, my parents have actually been involved in the Civil rights movement for a while. Dad has actually been going door to door trying to get black people to vote. Anyway, some of the freedom fighters have come a long way to be here. My parents offered up our home for some of the civil rights workers.”
“You have been living with a bunch of white people in your house? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well, we both know your parents don’t approve of the Freedom fighters in the area. My parents thought it might be better not to tell you.”
“Oh, ok,” I say.
“I really wanted to tell you, but we were afraid that if your parents found out, they wouldn’t let me see you.” She says quickly, “I’m sorry”
“Oh, I understand. It’s ok” I say. I am glad she told me now, and I truly do understand why she didn’t tell me. We walk up to Mr. and Mrs. West and the group behind them. After hugging Rachel’s parents, I say hi to Mr. Daniels. We all walk inside and sit towards the back. Once everyone got settled in their seats, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came through the door. As soon as he appeared, people began to stand up and clap their hands together in applause. I could see the expressions of enthusiasm and happiness on their faces. The air was filled with the joy of Dr. King’s arrival. I could not express my joy of being there and seeing him again simply by clapping and standing, all the excitement moved me to start singing. I begin to sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” with all my might. Someone in the row in front of me joins in, and then another person and another until the entire congregation is singing “His truth is marching on”! Being in this Beautiful chapel, hearing everyone sing, seeing Mr. King walk to the stage, this is all so amazing. The feeling I have, right now, right here, is outstanding and amazing and wonderful. I can tell now that I will never forget this moment and this feeling. I can do anything with these people. This is what I want to be part of. Where I am meant to be. As Dr. King reaches the pulpit, I can see his face from where I am standing. It is a thrill to see the smile and expression on his face, and the new type of enthusiasm radiating from him. This is amazing. He gets up there, and he begins to speak to us. His voice makes the room go silent. It was strong and deep, full of conviction and truth. He talks of a brighter future, of a place where people get along, where we are equal. He talks about a place where no one is chained by their color and people accept you, no matter what you looked like. “One-day children will walk together and say free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”
We walk out of that meeting with new hope in our hearts and ideas of the future racing in our minds. I say goodbye to Rachel and happily head home. When Mom asks why I was out so late, I apologize for my tardiness and head to my room. With all the day’s events to dream about, I drift peacefully to sleep.
The next week Rachel and I go to every meeting in the afternoon at the church. We always make sure to get there early so we can talk to Dr. King. We would go to where he was in the back of the church and sit on his lap. He always loved to hear us sing, and we would sing him some of our favorite freedom songs. We especially liked to sing “Come by here Lord, come by here”. Sometimes we would change the lyrics so that we could ask the Lord to help Selma.
Come by here my Lord,
Come by here.
Come by here my Lord,
Come by here.
Come by here my Lord,
Come by here.
Oh Lord, come by here.
Selma needs you, Lord,
Come by here.
Selma needs you, Lord,
Come by here.
Oh, Lord, come by here.
Dr. King would also ask us one main question, every time. He would simply ask us, “What do you want?’ and every time, we would reply “Freedom”.
“I can’t hear you, what do you want?”
We both replied louder, “Freedom and justice for all!”
I think he wanted us to learn to really speak up for ourselves because he always tells us he can’t hear us so that we have to say freedom louder and louder. The louder we say it, the more we learn that we truly want it.
One day after a meeting with Dr. King, as I walk out of the church and down the street, I notice a leaflet of a telephone pole. I have seen similar leaflets around town, announcing when our next meeting is, or when an important event is about to take place. This one, however, looks a little different. Instead of telling us when the next meeting was going to be, this one had the word “March!” spelled out in big letters. I look at it more closely. It says, “Join the Selma to Montgomery march this Sunday”. This Sunday! There is going to be a march! Finally! We are going march for our freedom! I get to be part of something big. This is it. The moment I have been waiting for.
I race to Rachel’s house and knock on the door. Her father answers the door and invites me inside. There are people everywhere, it seems like every free inch of flooring is taken by bedding. There are freedom fighters everywhere.
“Welcome to the second freedom house, Sheyann. Rachel is in her room over there.”
“Thank you, Mr. West,” I say.
I walk over all the blankets until I reach Rachel.
“Did you hear?” I ask excitedly.
There is going to be a march! This Sunday!”
“Oh yeah,” She says quietly, “I did hear about that”
“Well, aren't you excited? This is really important!”
She looks down, then through her door to the people in her living room.
“I know it is important, and I want to participate. I am just a little scared. I don’t want any of us to get hurt. What if something goes wrong? What if fighting breaks out and one of us die? I don’t want to lose anyone. My parents told me not to march”
“Well, we knew this would be dangerous…” I trail off. The concern she expressed just made the reality of the terrors of marches real. I have to face the idea that instead of being this grand freedom march I have been envisioning, this could be a disaster. I had heard of brutality going on with other marches, but I hadn’t thought about it happening here. I still want to do it. I know I want to fight for my freedom, but now I am beginning to feel fear for tomorrow.
“So, we are still going to march right?” I ask.
“Yeah,” She says, “But as soon as things get dangerous, I think we should leave.”
“I agree,” I say.
The next evening there is a mass meeting concerning the march that will be happening tomorrow. There were a lot of speakers giving their speeches about the dangers and procedure for tomorrow and how we are to conduct ourselves and what to do in an emergency. They talk about the different routes that were going to be taken, and where we wanted the most people. They also warn us that the march would not be successful, but either way, we were still going to try. Dr. King tells us that, even though he will not be participating in the march, he wishes us the best of luck for our safety and success. We prayed together, thanking the Lord for what he has done for us, and praying He will be with us tomorrow keeping each one of us safe.
I go home that afternoon to find my parents waiting for me in the kitchen. My mother beckons me over to sit down with them at the table.
I stay in the doorway. “Mom, Dad, what’s going on?”
Dad motions to the chair across from him, “Sit down Sheyann.”
I take a seat at the table and look at my parent's faces. Mom’s face seems to be red with anger, whereas Dad’s eyes are filled with disappointment and his frown shows his sadness.
“Sheyann, I know we told you that you were not allowed to go to those meetings they have been having in the church recently,” says Dad.
I know that not allowed to go to those meetings, but I feel like I had to do it, even if it meant being disobedient to my parents. The only reason they have let me out of the house was because I told them I was playing with Rachel. And I was hanging out with Rachel, of course, but what I didn’t tell them was that I was hanging out with her at the meetings. Which was where I was not supposed to be.
“Sheyann, I have been asking around the neighborhood, just to see where you two were.” Mom says, “Did you know that no one has seen you around anywhere? Then, today, I called one of our neighbors that call themselves a freedom fighter. I wanted to make sure that you haven't been sneaking off to those no-good meetings. When I asked him if he had seen you, do you know what he said? He said that not only has he seen you at each and one of those meetings, but you have been making friends with their leader! He said you two have been singing songs to him and in front of everyone in those meetings. How could you do this Sheyann? How could you lie to us?”
I look at both with pleading eyes. How can I make them understand?
“I’m sorry I lied to you. But you, you just don’t understand. I want freedom! I want to be part of what they stand for. We deserve to have a voice in this country, and since they aren’t giving grownups a vote, we need to shout louder to make sure we are heard. I have a purpose there. I feel like I belong with them. Please, try to understand” I plead with them.
Mom’s face turns a different shade of red as my explanation seems to anger her further. However, it is Dad, whose frown seems to keep getting deeper, who speaks next.
“Sheyann, I know you feel like you need to stand up and fight for freedom. But let me tell you, you do not need to be the hero. You are only eight years old. There are plenty of other people out there willing to stand up. Yes, it would be nice to be able to vote. If I could vote, I would vote every time. But that is not an option right now, and neither is your participating in these meetings. Do you understand?”
I look at them for a moment before I respond.
“I understand what you are saying Dad,” I say slowly, “But just think, if enough people stand up and march, voting will be an option for you! And you will not have to fear for your life just to let your voice be heard. This is important, and although I am only eight, I am one more person closer to getting our vote. I need to do this”
“I’m sorry, did you say march, Sheyann?” Mom says furiously, “What march!”
“Well, other freedom fighters have had marches before, I am sure you have heard of them. I didn’t say that there has been a march hare.”
“So, there won’t be a march here then?” Mom asks.
“Well, no, I didn’t say that. There is going to be one here” I say to them, “and you can’t stop me from going! I promise I will be careful, but I need to be part of this. Maybe you could march with me?”
“Child, if you march, I will whip you.” Mom threatens me.
“Even if you do, I am still going to go. They need me, and I need them. I...”
“No, Sheyann”, Dad says firmly. His voice scares me a little. “No, you listen to me. I forbid you to go to that march. You are not allowed to get involved further in this endeavor.”
I don’t know what to say. I love my Dad, and I hate being disobedient to my parents, but I can’t quit now. I really don’t like doing it, but I must lie to my parents. I tell them that I will stay away from the marches and the meetings, but I have no intention of doing either. Going to sleep that night, I have mixed feelings of shame, terror, and anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.
In the morning, I feel a heaviness in the air. As I go down to breakfast, I see my parents have sensed the shift too. They look more on edge as if something big was coming. I eat breakfast quietly. Mom talks about what needs to be done around the house. I think she is trying to give me a lot of chores to keep me in the house. I go outside on the back porch when Mom asks me to water the plants. She watches me for a few minutes before going back inside. Once she is in, I turn off the water and crouch low below the windows as I sneak around the side of the house. I take one look back at my home and the parents I am leaving behind before walking down the street on my way to the church. The sun peeks out behind a cloud, making my walk a lot brighter. When I finally arrive, I see a large group of people gathered in front of the church. I look around to see if I can spot any familiar faces, until my eyes land on my teacher, Mrs. Margaret Moore. I walk over to her and she greets me with a hug.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell her. I continue to walk around the crowd, searching for my best friend. I finally find her hiding in the doorway of the church. When I ask why she was in the doorway, she tells me she is hiding from her parents. I spot them on the other side of the crowd talking with some people. She and I walk around the group, careful to avoid her parents until we meet up with Mrs. Moore.
“Mrs. Moore, this is Rachel. She and I have been coming to the meetings.”
“It is very nice to meet you, Rachel,” She says. She pauses, examining our faces, “Are you two girls alright, you don’t look so great”.
I look at Rachel. Her face is pale, and her eyes are darting around the crowd. Her lips are pressed together in a small frown, and her breathing is a bit more rapid than normal. I realize that I must look the same, because I have to focus on slowing down my breathing. I discreetly check my pulse, and it is a lot faster than I expected. We are both freaking out about the march that is to come.
“To be honest,” I say, “I am really nervous about the march. What if someone gets hurt?”
Mrs. Moore looks at us with concern for a few minutes. She gets down on her knee, so she can look at us in the eye.
“Don’t be afraid, you will be fine. If you are scared, no one is going to judge you if you turn around. You have already gone above and beyond any expectations anyone might have of you just by being here. There is no shame in keeping yourself safe, and marching is putting yourself in danger. We have no way of knowing what the future may bring. The only thing we can do is pray to the Lord to keep us safe. He is the only one who can protect us in times like this. Would you like to pray with me?”.
Of course, we want to pray with her. I want to do everything I possibly can to keep us safe today, and reaching out to God is a great idea. Mrs. Moore prays for our safety and successfulness with this march. We pray that people would see us as an example and help end the inequality and make voting fair and accessible to all. Amen. Once we finish, we are asked to line up. I stand hand in hand with Mrs. Moore on my left and Rachel on my right. This is it. The moment I have been waiting for. Everyone seems nervous, but we seem to be standing together strong. Although I am scared, I feel determined. We pray all together one last time before we begin our march. As we move, I feel my heart beat faster. We walk through street after street, showing people that we are standing up for ourselves and our values. We are here, and we want change. Things are going well. This is good, I feel important. I am part of this. With Mrs. Moore and Rachel by my side, I can get through this. I look at Rachel, and she does not seem to be in as good a mood as I am. She has a frown on her face and her steps seem to falter from time to time. After a while, a breeze picks up which makes clouds roll in. It seems to get darker as the sun hides behind the clouds.
Finally, I see the top Edmund Pettus Bridge down the street. There are murmurs ahead of us, but the adults block the view. I hear murmurs from the people in front of us. Something about police, block, and stopping. I hear footsteps to my right, and I turn to see Rachel running away. I don’t blame her, because as we spread out into lines across that bridge, I see the horror in front of us. There are hundreds of policemen spread across the bridge blocking our path. There were state troopers and angry dogs. There were people on horses and with billy clubs. They order us to turn back, but we stand our ground. This is it. This could be the end. Those men in front of us have anger in their eyes. As the dogs' bark and the horses stomp their hooves, I begin to cry. My heart is pounding, I have never been more terrified in my life. Mrs. Moore looks down at me and sees the tears on my face. She takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. There are no words of encouragement now, and I can see that she is scared too. Some of the ministers towards the front shout, “Kneel down and pray!”. That’s all we can do. I kneel on the asphalt and pray. I say, “Lord, help me”.
Then the screams begin. I look up, only to see clouds of tear gas being unleashed. The police have broken formation and begin to beat anyone they can get to. I scramble to my feet and run. I run faster than I ever have before. As soon as I make it to the end of the bridge I glance behind me. I see horses galloping behind me, right at me. I try to run faster, but I cannot. They are getting closer to me, closer. The trampling of their hooves is deafening, and I can feel their hot breath on the back of my neck. Is this how I die? I think. Am I going to die here? I continue to run, but the horses are faster. The only thing I can do now is to continue to fight, continue to move, even if I am defeated in the end. I won’t give up. I keep on running. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I feel two strong arms lift me up and pull me out of the way. I am being carried away. I look up to see who my rescuer is, and I look into the face of Hosea Williams. A freedom fighter who has always been kind to me whenever I run into me. He has rescued me. I look around and see other people passing us. My weight must be causing him to run more slowly.
“Put me down!” I say, “You’re not running fast enough!”
He sets me down, and we both run away from that bridge as fast as we could. I keep running. I run and run all the way home. When I get there, I see my Mom and Dad, my siblings, all waiting for me at the door. But I am so scared, so shocked, that I run right past them and up the stairs and to my room. I can hear sirens out my open window. I can hear people crying out in the street. I am still terrified. I hear footsteps as my parents come into my room. Instead of anger at my disobedience, their eyes are full of kindness. They sit on my bed with me trying to calm me down, but I am so full of adrenaline and fear and shock that I cannot process what they are saying. They stay with me for hours, holding onto me tightly. Finally, I begin to calm down and think about what I just went through. I could have died, but I didn’t. I am alive, and here in my room, on my bed, with my parents. I am safe.
That night, I decide that I must go back to Brown’s Chapel Church. Even with everything that happened today, I still want to go back. I need to see the people that I marched with. I need to thank those who saved me and cry for those who might have been hurt or lost. I am determined to go back. But just in case I ever go through an experience like I did today, I decide to sit down and write my funeral arrangements.
At four o’clock the next day, I go to the church for another meeting. There are people sitting in the pews, talking quietly with each other. Some have fresh tears on their faces, others sit completely still and pray. Everyone seems shaken. I spot Hosea Williams near the front of the church. I go up to him and thank him for saving my life. His eyes fill with tears as he hugs me, telling me that he is so happy that I made it out alright. I look around to find other familiar faces. There is Mrs. Moore talking to one of the Ministers. There is Jonathan Daniels sitting in the corner. I walk over to him to ask whether or not Rachel made it home alright. When he sees me, his eyes fill with relief. He tells me Rachel made it home safe and sound, and she had been freaking out all night because she did not know whether or not I was ok. As I am assuring him that I am fine, a speaker walks to the stage.
“Thank you for coming today. I know that it may have been difficult for you to come, especially so soon after what happened at the march yesterday. Many of you are scared or shocked. I think we all are. We have people that know how to deal with shock if you need counseling. Now, yesterday was hard. There were rumors that a riot would break out, but we would never have guessed the extent of damage that took place. But even with all of the horror that we have gone through, we will not give up. They may beat us, tear gas us, and shoot us, but we will never back down. No matter the hardships, we will achieve our dream. These are big steps down the road to freedom, and we are getting closer every day. I encourage you to help your neighbor, and never stop fighting. We will go until we drop, because our lives mean something. We will have a voice. We will get our freedom. No one can tell us that we do not deserve to be equal. We will make it one day. We will truly be free.”
Yes, we will, one day. And I will never stop fighting. I am going to make a difference in the world. Even if I have all of the odds against me, I will always stand up for what I believe. I believe in this, and with hard work and determination, equality will become a reality. One day, we'll all be free.
Huntington, New York