I knew your mother (sister, aunt, father, brother, uncle) and I have stories to tell you about her and pictures to share.” How would you respond to the offer? I ask because this is where I find myself. It’s not my family involved, but the families of others I met in 1965. I’ve written a book You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You and that book includes information about lots of folks. The book is not a lurid exposé. But it does disclose secrets.
You Came Here to Die is non-fiction and takes place during the summer of 1965. I was a volunteer voter registration worker in Pineville, South Carolina. I’d volunteered to work with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). After a week of training in Atlanta, Georgia, SCLC placed nearly four hundred volunteers in local communities across the Deep South. Our job was to register as many black voters as possible so that when the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, they would be ready to vote. How we did this in Pineville is the framework for You Came Here to Die.
Within the framework I discuss how an eighteen-year-old white girl from kooky California adjusted to a culture very different from her own. For instance, when I left California we were wearing cutoffs and tee shirts – and there were mini-skirts. In Pineville it was rude to even mention if a woman was pregnant. So many things differed: language, food, rhythm of life, appropriate topics for conversation, music, clothing, dating habits and more.
And the people in Pineville were black. This was my first exposure to a black community. And, since they lived under strict segregation, the other volunteers and I were the first whites to live in their homes, go to their churches and challenge them to take a chance and vote.
They certainly took a chance if they chose to register. It’s hard to remember now, but during the 1960s southern states had laws on the books that made it damn well impossible for blacks to vote. And, where the law didn’t work, the Ku Klux Klan did.
Middle-class and spoiled, I was my own biggest challenge – not the southern bigots, the white-hooded Klansmen or a regional culture much more restrictive than California’s.
One of the delightful parts of this project has been sharing stories and pictures with families who didn’t know that their relatives were civil rights workers. I hope to write about the process of introducing some of the history of Pineville to the people who live there and to you.