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Roseville woman pens memoir about registering blacks to vote

'You Came Here to Die, Didn't You' recounts her experience in 1965 South Carolina
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Surrounded by cotton and tobacco fields in the Deep South in 1965, Sherie Labedis was a long way from home.

The 18-year-old white woman from Shingle Springs, Calif. had spent the months before attending University of California at Berkeley.

Here in Pineville, S.C., there was no outdoor plumbing, no telephones, a couple of stores, lots of mules and rampant poverty. Most adults over 30 couldn’t read, and younger people couldn’t read well.

But Labedis and her three colleagues had a job to do. Their goal was to find every adult in that part of Berkeley County and register them to vote. Each day, she pulled on a skirt, nylons and high heels — volunteers were told to look like they were going to church — to walk the streets of this rural community in the humid summer.

They often traveled in pairs, one white volunteer and one black volunteer, so black residents might feel more apt to talk. To register to vote, a black person living in Pineville had to take off work and travel 25 miles to the county registrar’s office, so they just didn’t bother.

“Our job was to convince them,” Labedis says.

But black residents would list their concerns: They could lose their job, their house might get burned down, they could be targeted by white mobs and get beat up or lynched.

“The list was really long,” she says.

For three months in the summer of 1965, Labedis, now 64 years old and a Roseville resident, actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement. She’s turned her recollections into a book published in January, called “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You,” chronicling what turned out to be the defining experience of her life.

“I went down there like a missionary,” she says. “I was taking the vote to these people. In fact, I’m the one who learned so much. My whole way of looking at the world — I didn’t care if they were black or poor — they taught me so much about living. I was accepted by a bunch of people that shouldn’t have accepted me for any reason whatsoever. And to be part of history, oh my god.”

‘What I was willing to die for’

Born in 1946, Labedis lived in Los Angeles until she was 10 before her dad, mom and younger brother packed up and settled in Shingle Springs. Her dad worked for Aerojet and mom was a stay-at-home “Leave it to Beaver” type.

“If I wasn’t doing homework, I was riding a horse,” Labedis says. “It gave me a lot of time to think. I got used to doing things alone.”

She graduated from Ponderosa High School. During a field trip, her class visited Berkeley and she fell in love.

“In 1964, (the university) had become a hotbed of revolution,” she says.

Labedis recalls going to pick out classes and walking by dozens of tables for groups on campus promoting or opposing different causes — the Vietnam War, poverty, women’s rights.

A few years prior, in an English class, Labedis read Henry David Thoreau and learned about civil disobedience. Her teacher, Bruce Harvey, had posed a question: What are you willing to die for?

“I thought that was extraordinary,” Labedis says. “So I started to think about what I would die for.”

In 1964, the United States was changing. An influx of mostly white students flooded into Mississippi and Atlanta to help register blacks to vote during Freedom Summer. Three of these activists were murdered.

“The fact that you would be killed for helping people register to vote was incomprehensible to me,” Labedis says.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the movement needed white students from the north to come and do the work blacks had been doing — helping register black voters and forcing desegregation. This was a strategy: white people knew lawyers, journalists and politicians. Some had wealth. If a young white person went missing, the American public would care. So Rev. King toured college campuses, recruiting help.

“And I found what I was willing to die for,” Labedis says.

School got out and three days later, she hopped into a Volkswagen with three other people and drove to Atlanta for a week of training with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Immediately after arriving, a barefoot teenager in bib overalls approached them.

"You came here to die, didn’t you?’ he said,” Labedis says. “‘Get back in your car and go back to wherever you came from.’”

This wouldn’t be the only confrontation that left them rattled.

Registering blacks to vote

During that first week, volunteers gathered each day to listen to movement leaders — Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and others — study relevant laws, attend seminars on organizing tactics and learn how to respond if attacked.

“There was lots of singing,” Labedis says. “We had to have that piece in order to keep going.”

They sang “We Shall Overcome” and held hands each night.

“I think they did a really good job of preparing us, but they couldn’t tell us how we were going to feel,” she says. “So things were shocking, even if we knew it might happen.”

Labedis was sent to Charleston, S.C. She says the black family she lived with didn’t know what to do with young white people — they wouldn’t allow them to wash dishes and refrained from engaging in conversation.

On her first day canvassing the neighborhood, she and her colleague happened upon a terrible smell, like a dead cat but worse. Labedis determined the stench was coming from a house and as she walked closer to an open door she saw an elderly woman — her leg rotting off and flies circling above.

That first day was bad for everyone.

“We all just looked at each other and thought, ‘What are we doing here?’” Labedis says.

A few days later, she moved to a different assignment in Pineville. For the next few months, volunteers experienced several scary situations. One time, their car got pushed off the road by two vehicles full of white men, who then beat up the male volunteers in Labedis’ car.

Another time, some white men threw a Molotov cocktail into the black children’s grammar school. The volunteers tried to save the building by filling up pots and pans with water to douse on the flames. A fire truck showed up, but without water.

A nearby Episcopal church prayed for the men who set the fire and offered their forgiveness, Labedis says. A week later, the men set another fire.

“This time it was that church they set on fire,” she says.

But not every experience was negative. Volunteers helped register 580 people in Pineville to vote that summer, Labedis says.

After the summer ended, Labedis enrolled for one semester at Allen University, an all-black college founded in 1870 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was given the nicest dormitory room, but she preferred the smaller rooms upstairs that smelled of burnt hair from all the hot combs.

“I loved the upstairs,” Labedis says. “It was the girls upstairs who pierced my ears. My parents wouldn’t let me pierce my ears. That was a big thing.”

She graduated from UC Berkeley, earned her teaching credential and taught for 34 years at Roseville high schools. Twenty years ago, she married Joe Labedis, who says he’s proud of his wife’s past.

“It’s something I could never do, I know that,” he says. “The nice thing is she has been in touch with these families for more than 40 years.”

Labedis hopes her memoir will serve as a tribute to these families and as a personal testament of one of the most significant periods in American history.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so passionately about something, so right about something,” she says. “I feel totally blessed to have had the experience, the opportunity to insert myself into a totally different culture and learn so much.”

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com.

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Sherie Labedis book reading of “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You”

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 8

Where: Orangevale Public Library, 8820 Greenback Lane, Suite L in Orangevale

Sherie Labedis book signing of “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You”

When: 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 12

Where: Underground Books, 2814 35th St. in Sacramento

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For more information about Sherie Labedis’ book, “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You,” visit www.sherielabedis.com.