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Former civil rights volunteer earned letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Local author spoke at library in Auburn
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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“You came here to die didn’t you?” Those were the first words Sherie Labedis was asked as she stepped out of a Volkswagen in 1965 in Atlanta, Georgia. The events that transpired after that earned her a signed letter from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She told her story at the Placer County Library in Auburn during the Friends of the Library’s Noon presentation. The now 65-year-old Roseville resident was 18, admittedly naive and on her way to South Carolina to spend the summer registering black people to vote. The young, heavy-set black man blocking her path was alluding to the acts of violence opponents of the civil rights movement were committing in certain cities around the United States. For Labedis, his ominous question didn’t come as a surprise, because if it came down to it, Labedis was willing to die for the cause. The UC Berkeley graduate wrote a book, published last year, detailing her summer spent working as a volunteer in a small town in South Carolina, which had a population of 99 percent black people. “I am of that generation when President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. The next sentiment ‘Ask what we can do for the freedom of mankind’ we usually forget and I was really caught up in that.” Studying in class, she was inspired to figure out how she would do that. “He said, ‘What are you willing to die for? That’s become my life’s work, to figure out what I was willing to die for,” Labedis said. “When I heard of registering black people to vote, I thought ‘that is what I am willing to die for.’” Knowing the dangers of the task at hand, including the killing of civil rights workers, she charged on. Labedis said there were many white volunteers like herself who were quietly doing their part in the movement. “It wasn’t all big cities and water hoses and bad police. It was a lot of people in little tiny places doing little tiny things one step,” Labedis said. “I think history was being made and we knew it was being made. We didn’t know if it would be successful or not. I felt like a missionary. I was taking the right to vote to them.” Labedis said it was difficult at times convincing people to vote because many of them couldn’t read or write and it was dangerous. She also taught people to write their name, so they could sign their ballots. After the summer was over, a black friend of hers challenged her to apply to attend an all-black university. She decided to take him up on the challenge. “I’d already paid my fees to go back to Berkeley. My father said he would never speak to me if I went,” Labedis said. “I called the NAACP. They said, ‘if you go, we’ll pay.’” She attended for a semester and then returned to Berkeley because the academics were better, but the experience was an eye-opener. Those who attended on Friday were also hoping for an eye-opener. “Well, for me it’s such a big issue there is still a Klu Klux Klan,” said Wes Fain, of Auburn. His wife, Ann Fain, said there was even Klan activity in Auburn in the past. “I am an Auburn-native and they had a Klan here in Auburn, but it was against the Irish,” Ann Fain said. Labedis said she hopes people learn how precious the right to vote is from her legacy. “People need to vote. In 1965 I literally was willing to die for it and I knew people that were beaten and I knew of people that died trying to do it,” Labedis said. “Fifty-five million people in this country according to the pew report are not registered to vote that could be.” Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com.