Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.Visit Facebook any day of the week and you’ll see no shortage of political divisiveness, rants about corrupt government, and frustrations that American life as we know it continues to go from bad to worse. Is it any wonder that when people stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, it’s usually because there are either no candidates they feel they can trust or they’re convinced that their votes won’t make even an angstrom of difference? Perhaps instead they should be taking a page from Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that ““History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”During the turbulent 1960s, a young white California coed seized an opportunity to step up for something she believed in and embarked on a bold mission to register black voters in the Deep South, a decision that put her face-to-face with staggering poverty, rampant illiteracy, and the Ku Klux Klan. For someone who had led a very sheltered existence the first 18 years of her life, her decision to become politically pro-active during a turbulent time in American history was not met with feelings of unmixed delight by her parents. Sherie Holbrook, however, was steadfast in answering a question that had been set forth by her favorite high school teacher: “What are you willing to die for?”In her moving memoir about the Civil Rights Movement – You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You? – she paints a graphic, violent and psychologically unsettling picture of an era that is only a scant 50 years in the rear view mirror but which still resonates today, largely due to the current administration’s none-too-subtle and dangerous agenda that every black is a victim, every white is an aggressor, and that the latter can never fully atone for the injustices of slavery and, therefore, must be punished. “Political correctness” has pushed society to the point that any disagreement with the policies and behaviors of the first president of half-color will garner accusations of racism. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, vitriolic suspicions were hurled at the U.S. hospital where the first person to die of Ebola was from Liberia; he might have received “better treatment” and lived, the assertions by the liberal media maintain, if it hadn’t been for his skin color.One can’t help but imagine how disappointed the late Dr. King would be to see how his heart-felt dream of love, trust and equality – the underscored message of positivity which runs throughout this book – could be so aggressively skewed the past six years into an ongoing nightmare of retribution, revenge and entitlement. For anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of race relations during the combustible 60’s, this book should not only be on their bookshelves but also introduced into the curriculum of high school and college social studies classes.
Through journal entries, photographs and maps, Labedis so artfully draws the reader into her fish-out-of-water experience that you can practically smell the Southern cooking, melt from the oppressively muggy heat, feel your stomach turn at the sight of a freshly butchered hog, grown from the exhaustion of going through orientation, and hear the grumbles of discontent of a rural population that doesn’t know what a “vote” is, much less how to spell it. “I haven’t had a real bath since we left Atlanta,” she writes, “just hasty wash-ups with the hose in the open space behind the store. My clothes get washed but they always smell musty and funky because they never dry. I didn’t bring a razor and I swear my deodorant barely works in this humid heat. My hair hangs wearily and most of the time I don’t even try to put on makeup, because it just sort of melts into a smudge. When I get home at the end of the summer my father will tell me my skin looks like a Guatemalan countryside: bumpy and pitted. I hardly feel like a sexy California girl. Flirting is part of California culture, the long blond hair, the bikini on the beach and the “necking” at the drive-in. But that’s in California and even there, it’s not me.”
Even the simplest tasks take on comparative meaning and will make readers appreciate all of the modern conveniences they take for granted. “Two months in Pineville have taken their emotional toll, ” she shares. “For Herb and Henry, who live here, that toll continually assaults their being.” Her talents as a wordsmith are further evidenced in descriptions such as the following: “The grit of the lane pulls at my low-heeled white pumps, making each step a commitment and the runs in my nylons and scratches on my legs bear witness to an earlier encounter with a blackberry bush. The clouds form a lid on the pot of humidity I’ve simmered in since June.”
There’s even an element of “forbidden attraction” when she finds herself the subject of flirtation with a handsome young man of color. To even be seen together in public, much less hold hands or steal a kiss,” was a crime punishable by prison…or worse.
That Labedis – a retired teacher – finally decided to do something with all of the notes and pictures she had taken during her time as a voter registration volunteer is a gift indeed. The coda to this dramatic story is that she also reconnected with a number of people whose friendships were forged back in the 1960’s. Her journal entries have been richly supplemented with interviews from individuals that had lived in Pineville at the time as well as those who were directly involved in the movement to register black voters. At the back of the book, she has also included a recommended reading list that was distributed to volunteers as part of their orientation.
She closes with a paragraph that’s especially noteworthy with the approach of mid-term elections:
“If our elected officials are not doing the job we want them to do, it’s because we have given them carte blanche to wield their power without limitations. We don’t use the most basic tool of a democracy: voting. If politicians have become as “evil” as some folks believe, it’s because we turned them loose and then refused to do anything more than whine. It’s time for us to take back the power the Founding Fathers gave us: the right to vote.”
Well said indeed.