As told to Elspeth Leacock - Bloody Sunday (Chapter 5) lyrics
When the day came, we set out from Brown Chapel as usual. I was with Jimmy Webb and fifteen of my buddies. Jimmy was our group leader. He told us to stick together and to remember “steady, loving confrontation.”
When we got to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge going out of town, all I could see was a sea of white people. That's when I got nervous. The road was full of white men on foot and on horseback. They were state troopers and sheriffs' deputies. Along the road were white people sitting on their cars waving Confederate flags.
The deputies were just mean white men. They didn't have uniforms or anything. Our sheriff deputized any white man who might want to bust our heads. The harder you hit, the more popular you were with him. And Sheriff Clarke was the meanest of them all. He was a staunch segregationist. He believed that he was white and he was right, and that was it. He hated black men, women, and us black kids. He just hated us all.
At first I tried to tell myself it would be okay because there were so many of us. Then I saw the state troopers putting on gas masks and I got really scared. I'd only seen a gas mask on TV, but somehow I knew something dangerous was happening. I had never been in a violent situation before. Sure, we'd been hit with a billy club or cattle prod, but we'd never really been beaten. Suddenly this seemed like something very different.
“Go back to your church,” the troopers bellowed out on bullhorns. “Go home.”
Then Jimmy Webb said, “Let's pray,” and we went down on our knees. That was normal. You marched, you were stopped, you prayed. Then you turned around or went to jail.
So I was on my knees when I heard these sounds: pop-pop, pop-pop. All of a sudden a cloud of gas was burning my lungs and my eyes. I couldn't breathe and I couldn't see. It was terrifying. I didn't realize it then, but it was tear gas.
The next thing I knew, I felt a man's hand grab me from behind, pulling me backward. I heard him say that hateful word. Then I bit that hand and that's when he hit me over my eye.
He hit me twice—hard. I was still kneeling, struggling to get up when he pushed me forward and hit me again, this time on the back of my head.
I staggered up and ran—right into the tear gas, but that big white man kept on running after me and hitting me. People were screaming and hollering and yelling. My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it would burst.
I must have fainted, because the next thing I knew, I came to on this stretcher. Some men were loading me into the back of a hearse, but I wasn't dead, and I sure wasn't going to let them put me in the back of that hearse before my time!
People were still running back across the bridge. The police and the state troopers were still beating them, and the air was thick with tear gas.
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I jumped off the stretcher and started running toward home. I didn't know what I was doing; I just ran.
When I got across the bridge, that's when I saw my little sister Joanne. She'd been marching farther back. Now she looked like she was dead, lying in a man's arms.
I ran to him crying, “Oh she's dead. They k**ed my sister!” But he said she had just fainted, so I slapped her on the side of her face— you know, to wake her up. But when Joanne opened her eyes and looked at me, she started screaming. I knew tear gas had messed up my face, but I didn't realize I was covered in blood.
Troopers were everywhere and I was sure one was going to hit me again. So I grabbed Joanne's hand, jerked her up, and started running. We ran straight to Brown Chapel. But there was a wall in front of the church—a wall of troopers and policemen and people on horseback. They weren't letting anyone in or out. So I just kept running with Joanne. I wasn't ready to stop till we got to the First Baptist Church.
Lots of people were there who had been hurt. We were told to wash our faces, necks, hands, and arms— any part that had been exposed to the tear gas. Everyone was trying to help us. When one man saw Joanne and me, he said, “This child is bleeding bad. She's got to go to the hospital.” I didn't know who he was talking about, because Joanne wasn't bleeding Then someone put a towel to my forehead and said, “She's bleeding from the back of her head too.”
They took me to Good Samaritan Hospital, but there were white doctors there, and in my mind it was not a good day to be around white people. When the doctor sewed up my forehead, I felt every stitch. There were seven stitches over my eye and twenty-eight in the back of my head.
I didn't know it then, but while I was getting stitched up, people across the country were watching a special news report on TV. They saw what happened in Selma that day— the day reporters called Bloody Sunday.
When I woke up the next day, I was in a lot of pain, but mostly I was angry, really angry. I was angry with George Wallace. He was the governor of Alabama, and I felt like he had personally sent those state troopers to beat me up. The governor was supposed to be helping people in the state, protecting them, but he was hurting them. He was hurting me.
Then I heard that Dr. King was planning a march to Montgomery, the state capital, more than fifty miles away. Dr. King wanted to show Governor Wallace and the world that black people still demanded the right to vote—that beatings and violence would not stop us. But I wanted to go and show George Wallace what he had done to me. I wanted him to see my swollen face and my bandaged head. I wanted to let him know that he wasn't going to do that to me ever again.
When I told Daddy I wanted to go, he said no. It would be way too dangerous. But I pleaded and begged. He'd have to tie me up and lock me in the house to keep me from going, I told him.
Then Miz Marie Foster and Miz Mary Lamar and some other church ladies said they needed help on the trip. They promised Daddy they'd look after me. So finally, he said yes. It's a good thing he did, because I was going to go on that march no matter what! I was planning on running away and then taking whatever punishment my father gave me. Now I wouldn't have to worry that my daddy would be looking for me. He would know exactly where to find me.
While I was talking my daddy into letting me march, something amazing was happening in Selma. A whole lot of people who had seen that Bloody Sunday news report were so mad that they came to Selma to join us. We were inundated with people, all kinds of people. I mean housewives, teachers, students, priests, nuns . . . and many of them were white.
It was all so different from the segregation I was used to. It was a whole different feeling suddenly with white people living in your house. They marched with us and were willing to go to jail with us. They ate what we ate. We cooked collard greens and cornbread, and they ate it and enjoyed it as much as we did. They were happy to be with us, even if they had to sleep on the floor. I met a lady from Brooklyn named Edna Grabstein. Mrs. Viola Liuzzo from Detroit was staying at the house next door to us. A young lady from Canada named Lynn stayed at our house. It was amazing. These people were really concerned, and they wanted to help. There was a whole new feeling in Selma.