Fireball in the Night
Rebecca Crawford: A Line in the Sand
Sherie Labedis grew up in Shingle Springs, California, where her passion for civil rights was ignited when her high school English teacher, Bruce Harvey, asked his students what they were willing to die for.
When Labedis entered the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, the campus swirled with causes, but it was the Civil Rights Movement that captured her attention with nightly news about marches for the right to vote, sit-ins, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls perished in Sunday school. The summer of 1964 was called Freedom Summer and Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, three volunteers registering black voters in Mississippi, were murdered.
"An address by Martin Luther King, Jr. galvanized me to act," she says today. "Meeting him was the most influential event of my life." She was only eighteen when she participated in 1965's Summer Community Organization and Political Education project (SCOPE) registering black voters for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (SCLC)
After a week's training in Atlanta, Labedis and three other volunteers were sent to the South Carolina community of Pineville. Here subsistence farmers still used mules instead of tractors, schools were segregated and folks had a desire to make their lives better.
Far from her sheltered California white middle-class life, she found herself in a rural black community defined by racism, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. She subsisted on honey buns, rice and an occasional hogshead stew. She felt the heat of the flames when one of the town's black churches was burned to the ground. Fellow volunteers were dragged from cars, beaten and thrown through glass doors.
It was that life-changing summer in Pineville that compelled Labedis to become a high school teacher and a public speaker passionate about righting wrongs. "I find that people today don't know about the Civil Rights Movement," she says. "They don't know whites were involved on the front lines. They don't know people died to get the vote back then and today they don't bother to vote at all."
Frustration that the Civil Rights Movement seemed like "old business" to so many people led Labedis to pull out her journal from 1965. "It all came back to me in such a powerful way," she says. "I wrote an essay about it and that essay grew into a book."
During the fall of 1965, prompted by a challenge from a black student in Pineville and with financial support of the NAACP, she enrolled for a semester at Allen University, an African Methodist Episcopal college in Columbia, South Carolina. Her time at Allen, where she was the only white student, is the subject of her next book.
Labedis returned to Berkeley in 1966, finished her degree in history and earned a teaching credential. She taught history and English for thirty-five years, most of it with at-risk youth, before retiring to write You Came Here to Die, Didn't You.
"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. This book explains how I adapted and flourished." You Came Here to Die, Didn't You can be found on Amazon.com and on Labedis' website.
Sherie Labedis is available for readings of her book, book signings, seminars and presentations. She can be contacted at www.sherielabedis.com.