The Second Freedom Summer
By Jo Freeman
A review of
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, xviii, 187 pp.
You can buy this book directly from the author, through her webpage 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.
One day two different groups tried to integrate local eateries in the county seat. The one Sherie entered was immediately closed and everyone told to leave. As she drove off with her co-workers two cars followed and eventually ran her off of the road. The whites in those cars got out, smashed the windows of her car, dragged two black guys out of the project car and beat them up.
The other group at a different restaurant was ignored by the management when they occupied two tables, but not by the patrons, or one particular patron, who was big enough and strong enough to throw each of them out the door as they endeavored to stay non-violent. One white, female civil rights worker was thrown through the plate glass door, ripping open the skin of her thigh. At the local hospital the white doctor stitched her up, then yelled at her to get out and never come back.
It’s always easier to write about the causes of fear than every-day drudgery, and the author’s descriptions of these scares and others make her summer sound exciting – in both senses of the word. She does this as though she’s writing a novel; her account of these events is gripping. But in the long run it’s the drudge work that counts.
That drudge work produced some sweet moments. One that Sherie cherishes still was when Rebecca Crawford learned how to write her name. Another was taking 150 people to the courthouse to register to vote on the only registration day in July. Or when local blacks packed the courtroom to see that one of them got a fair trial, before being thrown out by the magistrate who didn’t want to be part of “a show.”
There were also some comic moments, such as when the FBI showed up to investigate the church burning, and the South Carolina police asked the project workers what they did to cause someone to burn down a church and a school. Or when the sheriff arranged for them to be served in one of the restaurants they had been thrown out of to avoid a threatened lawsuit.
At the end of the summer she left wondering if she had accomplished anything. The obvious success of taking several hundred people to be registered that summer was outweighed by her guilt over the church and school burnings. That summer had left a permanent impact on her life; what had it done for the people she worked with? These questions were on her mind when she returned to South Carolina a few years ago to talk to the people she had worked with (some of whom she had stayed in touch with over the years) and find out what they had done with their lives.
She came away reassured that the summer project had made a difference. At the very least it gave local blacks a sense of hope, a feeling that others cared about them, and a belief that change was possible. “Once we got the votin’ fever” one said, things just had to change.
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