University of Vermont

MLK Celebration Speaker Shares Stories of the Civil Rights Movement

Sheyann Webb-Christburg speaks at Ira Allen Chapel
Sheyann Webb-Christburg speaks at Ira Allen Chapel. (Photos: Sally McCay)

Sheyann Webb-Christburg, civil rights activist and acclaimed author, spoke to a crowd of hundreds at Ira Allen Chapel on Jan. 24, sharing her experiences as “the smallest freedom fighter,” a name given to her by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Webb-Christburg, the keynote speaker of this year’s UVM celebration of King, was born and raised in Selma, Alabama, and was just eight years old when she met King. She and a friend happened to be playing in front of the now historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church as King and other civil rights leaders arrived for a strategy meeting, where they would devise a plan to draw attention to the injustices faced by African American voters. “Doctor King got two little chairs and sat them in the rear of that room. And then he asked us to have a seat. And he asked us, ‘What do you children want?’ Rachel and I looked at each other, not knowing how to respond. He said, ‘Children, when I ask you what do you want, I want you to say freedom….and when I ask you when do you want it, I want you to say now.’”

Sheyann Webb-Christburg speaks at Ira Allen Chapel

With King’s encouragement “to not only do my best, but be my best,” Webb-Christburg attended more mass meetings, eventually joining freedom fighters Hosea Williams, Viola Liuzzo, Rep. John Lewis and Jonathan Daniels on March 7, 1965 in the infamous violent march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “The picture of Bloody Sunday has never left my heart, neither my mind…much blood, sweat, and tears had been shed on that bridge, in an effort for African Americans to gain the right to vote, and yet today we still have a long way to go.”

Crowd at the 2017 MLK Celebration

She went on to implore the crowd to draw inspiration from King’s legacy and take the important work that remains head-on, 51 years after the march. “To the young people that are here, you must know that you are the vessels of hope. You are the voices of change, and you are our instruments of peace and progress…Let’s love. Let’s become that beloved community that we can and we should.”

Tynesha Mccullers '17 sings at MLK Celebration

The celebration also featured musical tributes by singers including graduate student Tynesha Mccullers ’17 (pictured), as well as remarks from Wanda R. Heading-Grant, vice president for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and Professor Jinny Huh, director of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program, who echoed Webb-Christburg’s call to action: “Fear may produce paralysis, but it can also empower.”

The celebration was sponsored by President Tom Sullivan, the Department of Student Life and the Office of the Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. See a schedule of the remaining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. events.