To the South and back
A Roseville woman spent nine days in June traveling through the South, visiting civil rights landmarks and reflecting on the era’s significance in her own life.
Sherie Labedis and her peers helped register 580 blacks to vote in rural South Carolina during the summer of 1965. She authored the book, “You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You,” which chronicles this adventure.
Her book, released in January, was on the recommended reading list for participants of the travel course, which was offered through Solano College. The tour went through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, and ended June 12.
“It was remarkable,” Labedis said.
During the trip, she shared her story as an 18-year-old civil rights activist.
“Her experiences as a veteran of the movement are very valuable to our students,” said Dr. Karen McCord, the professor who organized the trip. “(Her) experience as a young white college student who left her home in California to travel over 2,000 miles to register people to vote serves as a wonderful example of the power of young people and the importance of standing up for justice for all people.”
The 32 participants visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home and stood at the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King preached. They walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of “Bloody Sunday” when 600 peaceful marchers were attacked by police with clubs and tear gas.
The group went to the house in Henning, Tenn., where Alex Haley lived for a brief time during his childhood. Haley wrote the book that inspired the television miniseries, “Roots.”
“I think ('Roots') was the first time Americans had any clue how horrid slavery had been,” Labedis said.
They got their own taste of the horridness during what Labedis says was the most powerful day of the trip — a visit to the Slavery and Civil War Museum in Selma, Ala.
A tour guide ordered them off the bus and told them to line up, bend their knees, hold out their hands and open their mouths. They weren’t allowed to make eye contact or speak. He examined each person.
“It was their way of simulating what it was like to be captured,” Labedis said.
He took groups of five to a cell, which represented the fortresses where captured Africans were kept for weeks or months before being shipped off to foreign lands to be slaves.
“People had quit giggling by now,” Labedis said.
The activity continued as the group was called racial slurs and some pretended to be lynched. Afterward, they debriefed about how the experience made them feel. One black woman, Labedis said, remarked, “‘I spent my whole life trying to figure out how white people could be so deliberately cruel.’”
Labedis also met Simeon Wright, the cousin of Emmitt Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was murdered by white men in 1955 in Mississippi after reportedly whistling at a white woman. Wright shared a bed with Till the night he was kidnapped.
The sobering moments of the trip were lifted on several occasions, including a visit to a plantation outside Memphis, Tenn., where a white woman taught slaves to read and write. A tunnel under her house led the way to another house, then a river — and then freedom.
“(The trip) was really, really grueling,” Labedis said. “But it also touched everybody’s soul.”
Sena Christian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.