As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
During the summer of 1965, I was a 125-pound natural blonde, eighteen years old, and I was absolutely committed to equality. I was a voter registration worker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. My project was SCOPE, or Summer Community Organization and Political Education project. My story is from my book, You Came Here to Die, Didn't You? Some of the people in the story I'm going to tell you are still friends because they changed my life and I won't let them go.
Friday, August 20, Pineville, South Carolina. I need to pee, but I can't walk down the outside stairs to the toilet. I'm scared! In the loft of the Freedom House past midnight, soaked in sweat, our sheets thrown aside, Nellie, Carol and I pray for relief. Relief from fatigue, heat and constant nagging fear that drains our energy. Our bodies crave sleep. Can't. I'm frightened to death listening for the sinister crunch of gravel in front of the Freedom House and the crash of a Molotov cocktail smashing the storefront window setting the building on fire with us in it. The past two months here have taken their toll on me, on all of us. For Herb and Henry, who live here, that toll has been life-long.
I need to pee, but night frightens me most. Secrets happen in the dark. We can't escape in deep slumber, but occasionally there might be a tattered dream of home, the fleeting face of a boyfriend or the memory of sleeping in. Not tonight. A legion of mosquitoes plagues us, whining in the oppressive darkness. And when they land, a smack follows.
I feel the world is about to explode. Something waits in the night. I know it as I drift off.
"Fire!" a male voice yells below.
I jump up to look out the window expecting the male workers' rooms to be engulfed in flame, but a dull red glow highlights the horizon across the street accentuating silhouettes of loblolly and yellow pine.
"It's not here," I cry. "Looks like it's over near Redeemer."
Scrambling for our clothes in the dark, we fly barefoot down the stairs. Mrs. Simmons waits next to her car her black face fierce in Herb's headlights as he, Carol and Henry peel out of the parking lot spitting gravel against us. Nellie and I jump in Mrs. Simmons' car and she races after Herb toward that ominous glow. John stays behind next to the phone.
My voice quivers when I blurt out, "Could it be Redeemer?"
Mrs. Simmons worships there. We consider it our "home" church.
"Do you think it's the Klan?" I exclaim.
"You jus' hush now, you hear?" Mrs. Simmons hisses, both anger and resignation in her voice.
It's our fault. If we weren't here, there wouldn't be a fire. Then I look at Mrs. Simmons, her jaw set, her lips tight. Is she thinking the same thing? Or does she feel responsible? I don't have the guts to ask her so I never find out.
We round the bend and a blazing Redeemer fills our view.
"Lord, have mercy," Mrs. Simmons whispers. She steers the car onto the grassy shoulder and stops behind Herb.
"We are so sorry," Nellie breathes. And we are.
Redeemer has been a base for our voter registration drive. Rev. Gadsden and many of the congregation support white civil rights workers in their midst. On registration day folks meet here at Redeemer to catch the bus to the county seat. The church, surrounded by cotton fields on a rural road, obviously offered too tempting a target to those who would rid the community of outside agitators: Us.
We leave the cars only to shrink back from the blast of heat.
"Is that a fire truck?" Carol asks in disbelief as a truck passes us and pulls up to two houses on the right of the church.
"It belongs to Robert Bobbitt," Herb says. "He owns the cotton gin near Day Dawn Church. He's white, but he's wanted a local fire department as long as I can remember. The St. Stephen Fire Department is at least ten minutes away so he has his own truck."
Bobbitt runs out the hose. Henry and other neighbors hurry to help him. Even though there's no hope for the church, the houses might be saved.
"How'd it start?" Nellie asks.
"Fire bomb," Herb angrily picks up a hand full of sand and hurls it against the air.
"White guys in a pickup truck."
A pine tree explodes in a spray of sparks as flames reach its branches, fence posts char and suddenly the second story of Redeemer collapses with a horrifying whoosh and thud. Mrs. Simmons shudders.
"Why did it burn so fast?" I demand. "It's brick."
"It's veneer," she says simply. "We jus' finished it last year. We passed that collection plate lots of Sundays to pay for this rubble. It was built in 1911, jus' an old frame church."
Oh, my God, we're not playing I realize as we stare, hypnotized while flames die down and the fire is reduced to hot coals.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform," Mrs. Simmons says as she turns away from the fire and strides back to the car as we hurry to follow. "Some folks is gon' be mad with me, but most gon' be mad about our church. We need to plan a mass meetin'. The Lord's will be done."
She seems resigned, but I am far beyond the outrage I felt watching televised burning churches in Mississippi or Alabama. The Civil Rights Movement means Martin Luther King Jr., sit-ins, marches and Negroes voting for the first time. Outrage would be a relief from the guilt I now feel.
This is no longer an adventure or an opportunity to help others. Someone destroyed this House of God because we are here. Pineville is just a rural area, literally a wide spot on the road. Martin Luther King didn't come here. It isn't part of a Supreme Court case changing the way people interact in the world. No news cameraman captures this devastation. We four came and the most obvious proof of our arrival lies blackened before us. And tomorrow, we canvass for voters again.
Copyright © Sherie Labedis, 2010
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