Book Review: You Came Here to Die, Didn't You?
The Second Freedom Summer
A Review by Jo Freeman
You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?
Registering Black Voters One Soul at a Time, South Carolina, 1965
by Sherie Holbrook Labedis
Roseville, CA: Smokey Hill Books, ©2011, 187 pp.
The book may be ordered directly from the author at www.sherielabedis.com.
Most people have heard of Freedom Summer, when a few hundred mostly white college students went to Mississippi in 1964 to try to break white opposition to local blacks becoming voters, to run freedom schools, and generally to defy Southern racial practices.
Few know that there was a second freedom summer in 1965. The first Freedom Summer was run by a confederation of civil rights organizations, though SNCC took the lead. The organizations went their separate ways in 1965, dividing up the states so they didn’t overlap or compete.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, best known as Dr. King’s organization, brought between three and four hundred young people to six Southern states for a project called SCOPE — Southern Community Organization for Political Education. Expecting the Voting Rights Act to pass in June, its purpose was to get local blacks registered to vote.
However, the VRA didn’t become law until August 6, so the young volunteers had to deal with numerous county boards of registrars, some more willing than others to process long lines of aspiring voters, and various state laws limiting who could register.
Sherie Holbrook was in her freshman year at Berkeley when the march on Selma caught her attention (and that of a lot of others). She signed up with SCOPE and in June went from Berkeley, California, to Berkeley County, South Carolina. Her book is about that summer, based on a journal she kept, her memories, interviews with people she worked with, and photographs.
It was like going to a foreign country. Local blacks spoke a Gullah dialect — a patois of English and West African languages handed down over time — which she didn’t understand. She hadn’t known any black people in the rural California town she was raised in and had never seen the poverty and sheer neglect of people’s needs that she saw in South Carolina.
There were lots of new experiences she had to adjust to: sharing a bed, eating fatback, being stared at as she walked down the street, children who wanted to feel her blond hair, watching a hog killed for dinner, and white Southern hostility.
Being a civil rights worker sounds glamorous, but it’s mostly drudgery punctuated by fear. Most days were rather routine – going door to door in oppressive heat and humidity talking to people "one soul at a time."
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. A lot were apathetic; they’d been told so long that voting wasn’t for them that registering just didn’t seem like something they needed to do. Some were illiterate and couldn’t meet the minimal requirements to register.
Then there’s the fear. The black elementary school down the block from the Freedom House where Sherie and her project workers lived was set on fire; a fire truck came but no water was available to put out the flames. Less than two weeks later, a black church only a little farther away was firebombed by two white men in a truck. The message was clear: Get Out.
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