08/22/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the fall of 1964, Denise Nicholas, then 19, was in New Orleans protesting the arrest of civil rights photographers. Suddenly, she says, she felt a gun at her temple. "If you take one more step," a white police officer told her, "I'll blow your brains all over the sidewalk." Remembering the moment, Nicholas (who retreated to avoid arrest) says, "The country was on the cusp of revolution. For years those memories were sitting inside me, waiting to tell the story." Now she has. In her debut novel, Freshwater Road, Nicholas—best known for her role in the hit sitcom Room 222 from 1969-74—follows one woman's tumultuous summer as a voter registration volunteer in Mississippi in '64. A University of Michigan student at the time, Nicholas left to join the Free Southern Theater, a troupe that performed plays throughout the South. "It was dangerous, like a war zone," says Nicholas, 61. Afterward she moved to New York to pursue acting but says she "always had fantasies of being a writer."
Thrice divorced and living in L.A., Nicholas still acts occasionally and is working on another book. Coming not long after Edgar Ray Killen's conviction for murdering three Freedom Summer volunteers, her novel is perfectly poised, she hopes, to "remind people what a glorious time the civil rights movement was. I don't think we value that period enough. I wanted to lift it up."