Sherie Labedis: 'I Was Committed to Something So Much Bigger Than Myself'
Sherie Labedis revisits a once-segregated establishment she protested during her time in South Carolina and explains what it was like meeting Louis “Lefty” Bryant's children for the first time.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
PBS: During your story, we see you return to Howard’s Restaurant, a once-segregated establishment that you had protested. What was that experience like?
Sherie Labedis: When Robert and I entered Howard’s [in 2017] I was surprised at what was the same. It looked like it did in 1965. There were two black women behind the counter cooking, but no black customers sitting in the chairs or eating. The woman who seemed to be in charge was tight-lipped and frowning. I knew I was safe and I had lots of backup, but I did not feel any more welcome than I had in 1965. The customers looked at us quickly and then looked away. The waiter was, however, almost too pleasant and overly helpful. If we had gone back without the camera, they might have been able to relax more. Robert had never been inside. I had, but at that time I was concentrating on keeping my legs from giving out on me I was so afraid.
“We Shall Overcome” played over and over in my mind as we walked in the door. We were in the process of overcoming. There were rules for civil rights workers in 1965. One of them was to never be seen as a couple, black and white. Here we were breaking a rule 50 plus years later and I was still uneasy. Robert and I had not seen one another since 1965, although we had been in touch by e-mail since 2005. We had a million things to discuss – and having the director keep us on track was frustrating, but necessary because we had so many things to share. I’m not sorry I have missed eating at Howard’s.
"'We Shall Overcome' played over and over in my mind as we walked in the door. We were in the process of overcoming."
PBS: After the protest at Howard’s, two cars followed you and forced your group off the road. They threatened your friend Robert with a gun and assaulted Lefty. After an incident like this, what was it that made you stay to continue this fight for equality?
Sherie: I asked myself this question several times during the summer of 1965 and I am still trying to find the best answer. The first time I felt I HAD to leave was the second or third day I was in Charleston, S.C., before they sent us to Pineville. I was canvassing and utterly shocked at the poverty, illiteracy and sickness we encountered. Being middle class and fortunate, it was like landing on an alien planet.
One day my friend and I were canvassing and we smelled something foul. My smell memories said it was a dog that had been hit by a car. It wasn’t. It was a woman whose leg was rotting off. The ulcer on her leg was filled with flies their wings beating against the skin. It looked like a scab in motion. That was it for me. I was going home. I couldn’t imagine seeing more of this and I wasn’t the only one. Each of us had an experience that made us want to bolt that day. The director pointed out that they had warned us about this in our training in Atlanta and that they had explained ways of dealing with it. But hearing about it and smelling it were not the same.
What it boiled down to was that the problems of poor health and illiteracy could not be abolished without the right to vote because without the power of the vote, the white folks could ignore what went on in the black community. I went to bed sick, but I had learned the lesson. If all the volunteers quit, the problems would not be solved. I prayed to keep going.
"I went to bed sick, but I had learned the lesson. If all the volunteers quit, the problems would not be solved. I prayed to keep going."
The second time I was ready to go home was after Redeemer Reformed Episcopal Church was burned to the ground. I was very aware that if we had not come to Pineville, the church would still be standing. The feeling this time was guilt. I knew that more such offenses would occur the longer we stayed. I was shot at that night, but the fear I felt was not nearly as bad as the guilt I was feeling. However, again, if we left, the project would end and all the work we had done would be lost. If the black community didn’t throw us out because of the problems we brought, then we had to stay and finish our mission.
So, by the time we were driven off the road, I had talked myself out of leaving more than once. We all had seen the events of Freedom Summer – three young men murdered because they were helping black people get the right to vote. We knew they had been beaten before they died. Selma was a turning point for many of the volunteers – the reason they joined SCOPE – as it was for me. Selma meant violence. We had seen what had happened to marchers in Birmingham and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing where the little girls died on television before 1964.
We had a week of training in Atlanta before being assigned to our communities. We were taught ways to take a beating without getting too hurt. We were taught ways to stay out of situations where we might be hurt. There was never any suggestion that we would not be attacked some way. In Pineville the school had been set on fire and the church destroyed. Those were the “community attacks.” The personal attacks could not be too far behind. And, they weren’t.
"The answer to the question of what made me stay was simple. I was committed to something so much bigger than myself."
The answer to the question of what made me stay was simple. I was committed to something so much bigger than myself. It was like a religious commitment – with all the religious overtones of the Movement this was easy. I expected that I might be killed and it didn’t make any difference. I would be dying for something basic to the struggle for a civil, humane and equal world. People said we were brave (or foolish, and we were probably a bit of both), but mostly we were committed to making the world a better place no matter the cost. I didn’t leave because there was still work to be done. I had signed on for a particular amount of time and I was going to do the best I could do with the time I had.
PBS: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Lefty from your conversations with his daughters, Fanya and Somesha?
Sherie: I expected to hear that Lefty was dead and that he had been beaten or shot to death and that he had disappeared in a swamp somewhere. I suspect if he hadn’t left South Carolina this might have been the case. His “business” was pissing off the man and he was an expert at doing that. I thought his behavior simply wouldn’t be tolerated. I felt that was the case when I couldn’t find him when I looked for him in 2005. I wanted to interview him for my book.
So, the biggest surprise for me was that he had married and had two delightful daughters who obviously adored him. They were my biggest surprise. He had a normal life – or at least as normal as he could stand. I am so happy for him.
PBS: What would you say to anyone else trying to make this kind of search? What advice or tips would you offer? Were there any lessons that you learned regarding the search process that might help others?
Sherie: The search is worth the trouble even if you have to do it alone and there are so many benefits other than finding someone. A lesson for me: Don’t be afraid to ask. I tend to want to do it all myself, but this sort of a project means asking for help and information – being willing to follow a clue as far as possible. I gave up looking for Lefty in 2005 when I found him online. I was writing a book, not doing a research project at that time, so I didn’t follow up on all the possible online resources.
If possible, find professors who knew about a period of time when/where your subject lived or, in my case, caused trouble. Even if they don’t know your subject, they might give you background information that contains clues to the next step. Check newspaper offices – learn about microfiche. Talk to people in the community in which your subject lived. Who knew him/her? Don’t expect this to be a quick process. Check court records. Enlist a librarian.
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