Registering Black Voters one Soul at a Time
South Carolina, 1965

Sherie Labedis, 2022

Address given at dedication of historical marker.

"History is made by those who break the rules." I don't know who wrote it, but that is why we are here.

Mrs. Simmons was a masterful rule breaker. In the world of Jim Crow, her greatest violation of the status quo was to recruit four white northern students who, with local volunteers, carried out a voter registration drive during the summer of 1965. Our activities, under the direction of the Summer Community Organization and Political Education project (SCOPE), led to the establishment of a Freedom House, a Freedom School and the registration of 600 new voters confronting hundreds of years of discrimination. Mrs. Simmons not only made a difference in her community, she made HISTORY, and we are here to celebrate her accomplishments with a South Carolina state historical marker.

We know why we are here, but I want to share why I am here after 57 years. In March of 1965 I was watching television in my dorm when a breaking news story stopped everything to show the video from Bloody Sunday. I watched with horror and disbelief and vowed I would somehow confront America's big lie that all men are created equal.

When Dr. King called for volunteers to register voters in response to the Voter Rights Act, I signed up. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCOPE's parent organization, planned an intense weeklong training since most of us had no idea how to proceed. The teachers were the best in the civil rights leadership: Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Junior and Andrew Young. Young said, "The most important thing that you will do this summer will not be to register voters." What? Did I miss the small print? "The most important thing you will do is bridge the culture gap. You will prove that black and white people can eat together, live together, canvass together, go to jail together and in our case, face the Klan together. You will learn about one another, and you will share."

Before our feet hit the ground in this parking lot, we knew we would challenge hundreds of years of prejudice from both the white and black communities. You can learn about how to teach the voting process — it's easy. Not politics! But how do you bridge the chasm between black and white?

Mrs. Simmons brought us to Pineville giving us an opportunity to find out. The first week the Klan confronted us one night, pickups lined up along the road with their lights on while one of them parked and revved his engine with the grill of the pickup against our office window and the headlights in our eyes. On the other hand, most of the black community wouldn't look at us, talk to us or walk on the same side of the street — crossing over to avoid contact.

Regardless of how much I honored Mrs. Simmons, I would not be standing here if it wasn't for another woman who taught me how bridging the gap could happen. Mrs. Sarah Butler came into my life by surprise one day when I was canvassing alone on the dusty road behind Redeemer [church]. As usual, sweat dripped off my chin as I watched the drops fall and turn into tiny mud puddles in the dust on my shoes. I plodded toward Mitchell Town lost in thought and when I looked up, there she sat rocking on her porch watching me come up the steps as she said, "I was wondering when you'd get around to me. Would you like a glass of water?"

I hid the delight of my dehydrated body. She was the only person who offered me water that summer. Not only did she offer me water, she offered me a family. At first she was my surrogate grandmother, offering me a place to settle when I was homesick or afraid. Then she offered me someplace to stay when I had to leave my dorm at Allen University for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. I fished with one of her sons and spent a lot of time on her porch. When I returned home I talked so much about Ms. Sarah that my parents went to meet her in 1968, my first husband met her in 1969 and my second husband met the entire family in 2000. I came back to see my sister Lottie every year I could after 2000 and I am proud that there are four generations of Butler-Smalls who now call me Auntie Sherie.

Don't you visit places that touched your heart when you can?

Each time I returned to Pineville I checked in at the Simmons place. Something important happened to me here from registering voters to bridging the culture gap. I realized that something was the result of the force of Mrs. Simmons commitment to making the community a better place. Dr. Edwin Breeden called to ask me about SCOPE for a project he was consulting on at the Berkeley County Museum. Later when he became Coordinator of South Carolina's Historical Marker Program, I asked if he considered Mrs. Simmons a worthy candidate for a marker. His answer was "Yes" and after three years of preparation we sit here today celebrating a woman who broke the rules.

Copyright © Sherie Lebedis, 2022


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