Book Review by Jo Freeman on SeniorWomen.com., Civil Rights worker
Book Review by Warner M. Montgomery on the Front Page of the Columbia Star, Columbia, SC. (2011-03-18)
Book Review by Al Compaan, Civil Rights worker
America has become jittery in the face of terrorism. First after 9/11 and then after the Paris bombings of November 19, 2015, politicians and the media stoked fear across the nation. In times such as these it is instructive to recall that thousands of people voluntarily exposed themselves to the dangers of domestic terrorism during the 1960’s struggle for civil rights. Sherie Labedis’ compelling narrative “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?” can provide a very instructive perspective today. Her very readable book is a personal account of a young woman who volunteered for a dangerous assignment in the summer of 1965 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s SCOPE program (Summer Community Organizing and Political Education).
The struggle for civil rights is mostly remembered by singular shocking events such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, Mississippi burning in the summer of 1964 with the murders of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner, and the Selma marches in 1965. The drama of these events on national TV shocked the conscience of America and pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. It is easy to assume that these dramatic events and Dr. Martin Luther King’s oratory define the movement, but there is so much more to the story. The patient, brave, and dangerous grass-roots work in many different communities over many years throughout the South by local activists, pastors, and organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, and SCLC were a critically important component that is much less well understood.
This book provides an important perspective on those students, mostly white, who came from outside the South in response to the call from SCLC to spend the summer of 1965 working with local black volunteers on community organizing, political education, and voter registration. Labedis’ narrative speaks eloquently of events and relationships similar to those experienced by the 350 or so other SCOPE volunteers. Most of those volunteers had little previous experience in multiracial communities, often they came from rural or suburban communities. But they had a strong moral compass, driven by ethical and religious concerns, often stimulated by examples from strong teachers or pastors.
The SCOPE project provided these idealistic, albeit often naïve, recruits a one-week, whirlwind orientation to African-American culture and religion at SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. There they received a crash course in non-violent direct action and then were sent out to work in local communities across Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and southern Virginia. The volunteers learned from the civil rights veterans of SCLC (M. L. King, Jr., Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, James Bevel, Bayard Rustin and many others) about the risks inherent in community organizing and voter registration in those southern states. They were strongly urged against organizing marches or sit-ins but were to focus on political education meetings and door-to-door canvassing of neighborhoods and country roads to identify and persuade residents to register to vote.
This book shows forcefully how many different obstacles were in place to prevent African-Americans from voting, from getting a decent education, and from moving up the economic ladder. We read about the frightening brushes with sometimes brutal deputies, intimidation and beatings from local whites and the KKK. But we also read about the many deep bonds that were formed across economic, racial, and sexual boundaries.
As one of those 1965 SCOPE volunteers, I was impressed by the insight and perspective that Sherie Labedis provides. The book relies heavily on her detailed diary recorded in the moment, but also on contacts that she renewed upon more recent visits to the South Carolina coastal communities in which she lived and worked. An extensive collection of photos of the people and events really enhances the impact.
This book provides up close and very personal insights into the day-to-day experiences of people in the civil rights movement. It will give the reader new appreciation for the amazing personal strength of unsung local leaders who risked their lives and livelihoods every day, and for the impressive commitment of out-of-state volunteers. Their activities have too seldom been recorded but they provide a critical underpinning of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. If it helps to reduce our hyperventilation over today’s fear of terrorist attacks, even better.
–Al Compaan, Nov. 22, 2015
Book Review by MovieGirlCH almost three years ago on Barnes and Noble:
“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 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 rearview 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’tt 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’ss time for us to take back the power the Founding Fathers gave us: the right to vote.”
Well said indeed.
Loyce Smallwood, Auburn CONNECTIONS Writers.
I have a very high bar and it takes a great deal to impress me and I usually pass on the gifted books I receive as I have little tolerance for what lacks character. However, you’ll be pleased that in your case I am very impressed by your history and your story. Sending glowing reviews for your accomplishments/writing.
Jo Freeman, American feminist, political scientist, civil rights worker, writer, and attorney
Many people were afraid to register; standing in line at the courthouse is a public act; a list of registered voters is a public list.
Jerry McCracken, entrepreneur
You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You, should be required reading for all junior and senior high students.
Susan Harvey, retired teacher
I finished the book last night. I could feel the fear that people felt at that time, a mark of fine writing!
Frank Milligan, former resident of Pineville, SC
I am surprised to know how few kids in Pineville know about the church burning now. It was one of THE major events in my life – but it is just history for them.
Bettina R. Flores, author of Chiquita’s Cocoon
When a young, white and blond woman leaves the comfort of home in California to join the Civil Rights Movement in an all Black community she, indeed, becomes a hero for all women.
Author Sherie Labedis goes to Pineville, South Carolina not because it’s the call of the times but because her heart, full of personal compassion, cries for justice.
In this book “Blondie” eats, lives and breathes all that is Black, including the horrific perils of racism – hate, lies, abject poverty, malicious law enforcement, and every ugly form of verbal abuse.
I’m a Latina woman whose lifetime mission is to help women find their calling. Author Sherie Labedis not only finds hers but scores above and beyond anyone’s expectation. Hell, her book title says it all! Sherie is her own hero.
Bud Gardner, co-author of the New York Times best seller Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul
Labedis narrates one way people of like mind, the majority students, joined to solve a problem facing our nation. Although powerless alone, each believed that they could make a difference if they acted together. And, they were right. This book challenges us to get involved.
Debra Latteri, Instructor, Sierra College
Sherie Labedis’s personal account of the sometimes jubilant, sometimes melancholy, and sometimes horrifying events she witnessed in the South during her efforts to register voters in the predominantly “Colored” town of Pineville, South Carolina is riveting and heart-wrenching. The book is rich in the historical events of the summer of ’65 and chronicles the journey of Labedis’s transformation from knowing only the typical “White” culture into which she was born to her enculturation into the “Colored” culture of the mostly segregated South. Labedis offers a primary source account of one idealistic, young college student intent on equalizing racial divides in the South through the power of the vote, while at the same time, being changed forever as she discovers the deepest essence of herself.
Nancy Gilliam, Co-Founder of the African American Literary and Media Group, Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers Honoree
A powerful, inspiring memoir of one of the most significant periods in American History, Sherie Labedis does not tell about her experience during the Civil Rights Movement, she makes you feel it. Educators across America would serve their classes and this country well by sharing this important piece of literature with their students. The historical importance is undeniable. The lessons in integrity, sacrifice and perseverance are priceless.