You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You
True tales of burnings, ballots, beliefs, and a blond from Berkeley
By Sherie Labedis
Burnings, ballots, and beliefs are what I remember about the Civil Rights Movement during the summer of 1965. I was a blond, white, eighteen-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, who volunteered for a voter registration project in Pineville, South Carolina because I believed in freedom and equality. Most books about the Movement are written by African-Americans or academics. This one is different. It’s written by a white woman who helped make it happen.
Martin Luther King’s compelling oratory lured me south, but reality struck the day I arrived when a barefoot black teenager clad in sweaty bib overalls challenged, “You came here to die, didn’t you,” and it wasn’t a question.
The rotting flesh of a woman dying without medical care ended my innocence. My reliance on safety shattered when two black passengers were beaten when the car I drove was forced off the highway. Grits and hog-head stew, mosquitoes, debilitating heat and a restricted life style tested my composure. Conviction wavered as I watched the church we attended reduced to ashes.
The young man in bib overalls was right; part of me died. But new parts emerged. Self-reliance sustained me when I became the only white student at a previously all-black university. Resolve and trust made teaching at-risk students my life’s work. I know that now. But in 1965 I thought I understood the protests, the sit-ins, and the tear gas of the Civil Rights Movement. Viewed from 2500 miles away, at the fog-cooled University of California, these activities were part of Berkeley campus life. But my upbringing, news broadcasts and campus politics hadn’t prepared me for the segregated South.
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.