Excerpt from the first chapter of my book –
You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You
by Sherie Labedis
Monday, June 14, 1965, Atlanta, Georgia
“You came here to die, didn’t you.” It isn’t a question. It’s a challenge from a scrawny Negro* [In 1965, the black Americans I met referred to themselves as Negroes. White southerners called them colored or niggers.] teenager in faded bib overalls. His bare chest glistens in the hot Georgia sunshine; he reeks of body odor and my stomach lurches as I look up at his black eyes. I catch my breath while I lower my eyes to his unshod feet in the grass.
I’m standing on the sidewalk at Morris Brown, a Negro college in Atlanta, Georgia. The Civil Rights Movement is front-page news across the United States. As an eighteen-year-old white female voter-registration volunteer from California, I’d expected to be applauded upon arrival for a week of voter-registration training. Instead of a welcoming committee and pep rally, this young man’s almost angry dare welcomes me.
“I’m talkin’ to you,” he snaps. I force myself to meet his eyes. “If you didn’t come here to die, it’s time you git back into that car and head back to New York, Chicago or wherever you come from.”
His scorn leaves me feeling disconcerted, even disoriented. All the way from Berkeley, my three companions and I talked about dying, but only in an abstract way. Suddenly this teen makes my death possible and I want to escape him.
But he forces my attention to him. “So, why’s you here?”
“I came to help Negroes get the right to vote.”
“What’s in it for you?”
“I don’t think I can be free until everyone’s free,” I cite a slogan that inspired me to come here and wonder if I sound as cavalier to him as I do to myself?
“If some nigger killed your father, would you still think so good of Negroes?” He mocks.
“I hope it wouldn’t make a difference.”
“You got a lot to learn,” he scoffs, walking away.
“That’s why I came!” I want to shout after him. I know I have a lot to learn. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) knows they have a lot to teach white volunteers. Some of us, like me, have never shared a conversation with a Negro.