Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Line In The Sand

By Sherie Labedis

Blue. Once the paint was blue.Weathered, sun tarnished, the house slumped on the sand in the clearing. The door stood open, and though the few windows were glass free, it was dark inside.A roof of rusted tin shaded the front porch and steps, never painted. A shabby cane chair, a broken box of firewood, that’s all there was.

She was as weathered as her home, dressed in a gray skirt; the blouse darker gray, but still gray.Her hair, black and gray, was pulled severely back from her face. Her skirt stopped at cracked, bare feet as she stood on the hot sand and watched me trudge up the road.

The same grit of the lane pulled at my low heeled white pumps making each step a commitment. The runs in my nylons and scratches on my legs were witness to an earlier encounter with a raspberry bush. I’d read books about the sun searing the skin on the desert. Not here. The clouds formed a lid on the pot I’d simmered in since June. Sweat oozed persistently between my breasts, under my arms, down my thighs. My blond hair sagged against my neck for support. Many hand washings had not released a moldy whisper from my orange and yellow striped cotton dress, which glued itself to my damp body. I yearned to be dry.

What was she thinking as she watched me? White folks drive up in cars; they don’t walk up to the house. She went to church regularly and perhaps she guessed who I was as we frequented churches encouraging people to vote. When I reached her, her eyes were veiled, but not cold. She didn’t trust me, but she wasn’t locking me out.

“Evenin’. Mrs. Crawford?” I asked.

“Evenin’,” she answered, her voice almost a whisper as she looked at her feet. She wasn’t going to help me.

“My name is Sherie Holbrook and I am here registering voters for Martin Luther King.”

I had said the magic words, Martin Luther King, and she looked up at me quickly and then down.

“We’re talking to people about going to the court house to register to vote. Have you registered yet?” I wished she would offer me a glass of water.

The soft voice answered, “Yes, ma’am.” Perhaps I would go away now.

I didn’t believe her.I had been taught to say exuberantly, “Good for you, so few people have. Do you have your registration card?”

“Yes, ma’am.”She turned toward the house, limping slightly as she walked up groaning steps and disappeared into the darkness. Time went by. I thought she had decided not to return. Sometimes, that’s what folks did. They just disappeared so they wouldn’t have to explain they were terrified to vote.

This was the summer of 1965 and waves of change were crashing against shoals of tradition across the American South. The American Negro demanded freedom and the rights that freedom bestows and they were determined to get that freedom now! For many, the price for that freedom was costly. Some of the people we met told us that Negro votes were not counted, so there was no reason to vote. They knew that some people who resisted the system lost their jobs, like Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Some relied on surplus food to feed large families when the income from chopping cotton fell short. With the mere flourish of a pen, this source of sustenance could disappear. There were beatings, lynchings, bombings and burnings. Just having us in the community could have lethal consequences as it had in Neshoba County, Mississippi where churches were burned and three civil rights workers disappeared. A year later their tortured bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. In Birmingham, Alabama a church was bombed and four little black girls in Sunday school died in the rubble. We represented change, but we also represented danger and eventually we would leave and the community would be left with the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen’s Council and politicians who owed their success to stopping this change at any cost. Terrorism wasn’t shipped from afar; it was home grown and racially specific.

Now I brought that danger into her dooryard.Mrs. Crawford had no job and her husband could not be fired.He died longago.S he had no children who could be hurt. They had moved north for jobs in the cities. Her house was all she had, and she knew it could easily be burned to the ground. That’s what happened to her church when the white “Civil Right” people came and held their mass meetings there.

Her hands were empty except for calluses when she reappeared.She watched the ground as she came closer.“Cain’t find it.” she mumbled an apology.

“But you don’t need it.” I didn’t want her to get away.“You can help us anyway because you have registered to vote.” She glanced up at me for a second.

“On next Monday, we are taking a bus of people down to Monck’s Corner to register. If you come with us, you can help them understand how important voting is and they will see that you have done it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she murmured.I’ll come.”

“We are meeting at Redeemer Church at 10:00I insisted.

“Yes, ma’am.”


Mrs. Crawford was not there as the old, faded green bus crunched across the church parking lot and rested before the crowd of quiet people. The importance of the occasion was clear that sultry morning:Sunday dresses and suits, fancy hats with feathers and tulle, polished shoes, pocketbooks.They were too quiet, too afraid, but they were there.They deserved more. They deserved to celebrate their courage! Florence began to sing, “Oh, Freedom.Oh, Freedom.Oh, Freedom over me.And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”The crowd tentatively followed her lead.

We stepped up the tempo by singing “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”Voices committed more in volume and conviction.With "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round", the crowd picked up the verse and their pride as everyone got on the bus and it slowly whined out onto the road.

Inside the bus fans fluttered like butterflies to beat back the heat.Many had pictures of Martin Luther King on them, others the image of Jesus.Someone else saw her first, walking slowly toward the church, waving her handkerchief. The bus creaked to a stop and Mrs. Crawford stepped up.

She came down the aisle to the empty seat next to me and smiled as she met my eyes.

“Everyone! We’re so lucky. Mrs. Crawford has already registered to vote and she has come to answer any questions about doing it.” Applause.We went on singing.

She sat quietly next to me in her broad brimmed straw hat. Five miles went by, and then she whispered, I ain’t never registred.”

I whispered back, “But, you will today.”

“But, I cain’t read or write.”

“I’ll teach you.You just need to sign your name.”

“I cain’t”

“We have time. I’ll show you.”

I took a pencil from my purse and turned to the back of the map of Berkeley County. I slowly wrote Rebecca Crawford.It was too much; I could tell as a furrow tightened between her eyes and her gaze dropped to her lap.

“Wait. Let’s start one letter at a time. Here, write over the top of this letter R.”

I wrote the R and handed her the pencil and paper. Awkwardly, she traced the letter over and over.“Now, write the R fresh here below”.Her hand shook as she tried. I couldn’t recognize the letter and we started again.

Fifteen miles is not very far when you’re trying to overcome 250 years of defeat. We registered 150 people that day, but Rebecca Crawford was not one of them. She asked me to come and teach her, so she could “registr” next time. I promised I would. I had nothing to give her with her name on it when I kept the map.

More than a month went by. As much as I remembered my promise, my other responsibilities kept me away. Begging our project director for some time to visit her, the time at last came where my promise could be fulfilled.

The road was as long and as hot as before.Far ahead, I could see someone moving toward me.I recognized the straw hat first, then a basket on her arm and finally that beaming, delighted face.

“It’s you!” She set down her basket in the middle of the road and raised her arms to heaven in thanks. I shook her hand and smiled back into her eyes. Before I could say anything, she said,

Chile, I been wonderin’ where you was.Sunday I prayed that you come and learn me how to write.”

I explained I had been busy trying to get other folks to register.

“When I gots up this mornin’ I was feeling something extra good was gonna happen today.I cleaned my house real good.I felt so grand I come on down the road. I saw you and I knew what that good was.Look what I cain do.”>

She bent down and picked up a stick. With a steady hand she wrote Rebecca slowly and deliberately in the sand.

About Sherie Labedis

"Is the right to vote worth dying for?" This question filled the minds of the black folks and white volunteers encouraging them to register in the summer of 1965.The essay, "A Line in the Sand," describes the dangers for black people voting at this time, the manner in which people were recruited to vote, and the courageous personal stories of two women.

In 1965 Sherie Labedis was a white volunteer enlisted by Martin Luther King Jr. to get black voters to register and vote. She was 18 and a middle class college student from California. Mrs. Rebecca Crawford was sixty, an illiterate black woman burdened with the racist legacy of the South. Her response to being treated with genuine respect led to a friendship that lasted through twenty-eight years and two generations

No comments: