The times are not a’ changing
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked white people to help register black voters in the South. Sherie Holbrook, a blonde 18-year-old freshman at University of California, Berkeley, answered the call. “I had never felt smothered by prejudice. I naively believed the right to vote would bring equality.”
A small town girl, Sherie was startled, and a little frightened, as she encountered intensely heated protests on campus – pro and anti-Vietnam, feminism, free speech, etc. The National Guard was called in, and she sat in class with watering eyes from tear gas.
The sometimes violent protests were overwhelming, but as she slowly processed the elevated emotions swirling around her, she also understood they were living their beliefs. She recalled her high school junior English teacher reading Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.” After its closing, he asked the class, “What are you willing to die for?”
She volunteered to assist with black voter registration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCOPE), and shook hands with Mr. King when he spoke to them about preparing for the venture. That venture, she ultimately discovered, would challenge and re-shape her perception of humanity.
Required training included tips on how to respond to violent situations in non-violent ways, such as going limp once you’re down on the ground. Never, under any circumstances, go out alone. When leaving a Freedom House (planning centers for local projects), you were instructed to call in every hour, “so if you disappear, they can start looking for you sooner.”
Although initially sent to Charleston, South Carolina, she and a few others in her group were told that NCAAP wanted them in Pineville instead. NCAAP wanted integration demonstrators to be arrested, so they could test the application of law in court. Pineville was a “backwoods” community (translation: lower news media profile), so the volunteers could focus on registering black voters. Six days later, she had her first, but not last, experience with the Ku Klux Klan.
Due to the presence of Sherie and other white people assisting with the project, black volunteers were beaten, a school was burned, and a church was fire bombed. But, they continued moving forward. “We know the FBI won’t follow up on any evidence they find. In civil circles they are notorious for watching civil rights workers beaten, and churches burned. They collect evidence, but never do anything to help.”
She slowly learned the language of Gullah for easier communication, and faced the basic voter registration requirement of a signature. Most Pineville residents were illiterate. Although some could sign their names, most could not.
Walking door-to-door, she encountered the smell of poverty, and death. To say food was scarce would be a gross understatement. A Pineville resident shared an experience years later: “Ah ate possum until Ah was coming home through the cemetery and saw possum chewing on something it pulled out of a new grave. Ah don’t eat possum anymore.”
Despite the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual challenges, Sherie and her group managed to register black voters. After spending almost nine weeks of the summer of 1965 in a community drenched in poverty, death, illiteracy, and prejudice, how did she adjust after returning home to California? Listen to my interview with her on Conversation Accessories.