[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
Hello. My name is Sherie Holbrook Labedis, and I want to share with you the story I remember best from 1965. It's about Rebecca Crawford. She was from Pinefield, South Carolina. South Carolina, not Mississippi. Cotton country, 99.9% Black. I was in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's SCOPE Project, the Summer Community Organization and Political Education. What was she thinking as she walked me walk down the road? My face was dripping with sweat. My hair was so wet it was slumped against my neck. White people drive up; they don't walk up to the house. She was weathered. Her skirt, gray skirt, stopped at her ankles, and we could see that — or I could see that her feet were cracked and bare. Her blouse was gray, and her hair was black and gray and pulled severely back from her sienna face. She had been at least 50 years picking cotton. Her husband was dead. Her children had moved away. All she had was this little cabin, and here I come into her door yard bringing danger her way.
"Mrs. Crawford? Good evening."
"Good evenin." She studies her feet.
"I'm here registering voters for Martin Luther King." And at this name, this magic name, she looks up and then down. "We're talking to folks about going down to the courthouse to register and vote. Have you registered yet?"
"That's great! So few people have. Do you have your registration card?"
"Yes, ma'am." And she walked up into her house. And time went by. And I thought maybe she wasn't going to return, like so many other people who just didn't come back if they didn't want to talk about being afraid. She reappeared. Her hands empty except for calluses. And she said, "Can't find it."
"You don't need it. You can convince people that it's important to go down and register to vote." She looked up at me quickly and then down, gauging my credibility. "We're taking a bus down next Monday, down to the courthouse to register. Will you come?"
"We're meeting at Redeemer Church at 10 o'clock."
And I turned away knowing she wasn't going to be there. And she wasn't, and so I wasn't surprised, although I was disappointed as the faded green truck kind of bumped into the parking lot and pulled in front of this large number of Black, silent people. They were afraid. And so we started singing Freedom songs. And when we finally got to "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around," we loaded the bus and started off down the road. And the bus driver saw her, walking up, shaking her handkerchief. And he pulls over and stops.
Mrs. Crawford stepped up in her pale pink dress and her white hat and purse and shoes. She comes down the aisle and sits down next to me and smiles in my eye. "I'm glad you came."
And we go back to singing. A little bit down the road she says, "Child, I ain't never registered."
"But you will today."
"Uh, I can't read or write."
"But you can learn. All you have to do is write your name."
"Then I'll show you. We have time." And so she kind of said OK, and I took out a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote Rebecca Crawford across it and watched her as the furrow between her eyes deepened, and her eyes dropped down to her lap again. And I said, "Let's do it this way. I'll write an "R" on the paper for "Rebecca," and would you just trace over it and over it for awhile and see what happens."
And she started, and she was very awkward with the pencil. And she — well, she was doing it. And I said, "Now write it down here below." And her hands shook. And I couldn't tell what she was writing. And so we started all over again. Now 15 miles is not very far when you're trying to overcome 250 years of defeat. We registered 150 people that day. She was not one of them.
But on the bus she says to me, "Child, you gots to come and learn me how to write, so I can register next time."
I said I would, and it was five weeks before I got back to her. And I'm walking down the road, and I see somebody walking toward me. First I recognized the straw hat and then her basket and then her beaming, delighted face. "It's you!" And she sets her basket down. "I been thinkin' about you, wondering when you were gonna come and learn me how to write." I explained where I'd been, helping others, and she said, "Well, when I woke up this morning, I knew somethin' good was gonna happen today. I felt so grand I come on down the road. And when I saw you, I knew what that good was. Look what I can do."
She reached down. She picked up a stick, and she wrote Rebecca in the sand.
I corresponded with Rebecca until 1995 when she passed away from a stroke. I'd get letters from her, and I have some on my table. There are two. They were always written in a different handwriting. And so I thought she never had learned how to write. And I was talking to her daughter, Lucille Washington, and in 2005, I said, "Lucile, this is — you know, your mother was so courageous."
And she says, "Oh, yes, yes, yes, Mama was." I said, "I feel so bad. It hurt my heart that she never learned how to — she never got to register to vote."
And Lucile said, "Lord, girl, she registered. Remember that night school y'all started? Well, she went down there. She learned to write her last name. She registered to vote. She never missed an election. And she loved voting for President. And the only thing I'm sorry about is that I wish she were still alive so that she would know that you had written a book and that her story is in it." You Came Here to Die, Didn't You?, by Sherie Labedis.
Copyright © Sherie Labedis, 2013
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