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Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014

Right to Be Civil

Posted Monday, August 31, 2009, at 10:37 AM

Aug. 28, 1955, was the day Emmitt Till of Chicago Illinois was murdered. It was, in the words of one who was there, "the spark which ignited the Civil Rights movement." If you never heard of this 14-year-old boy, stop now and look him up. He changed you.

The school system in St. Louis during the 1950s was not segregated so much by any law or court as by neighborhood, geography, and custom. When we were about to start high school someone came to orient us to what was coming. They told us that according to Brown vs. Board of Education all schools had been integrated. As St. Louis schools had been integrated for years this would not affect us, except to the extent it would be a new experience.

This background and my parents never teaching me prejudice was my introduction to high school and to the expression "Black." Guess this was why I simply did not understand the Civil Rights Movement. I had neither experience with hating nor with being hated for my race.

It is with regret, looking back these near 50 years, that I did nothing to help make our world the better place it became because of those who were willing to lay down their lives to make it so.

My one moment of truth came probably in 1960.

I was a fountain boy at the now defunct restaurant chain called Parkmoor. It was an odd combination of formal restaurant and drive-in which attempted to provide a sit-down experience for carhop service customers. This dualistic approach may have been the reason for Parkmoor's demise.

These were the years when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. A Public Accommodations law was passed which decreed St. Louis restaurants could not discriminate in either hiring or serving. Parkmoor had always hired Negros for kitchen work, along with providing curb service to all comers. Up to then, though, we hadn't served "those people" in the dining room. Oddly, down the street was a better known chain restaurant that would serve Negros but not hire them.

Both restaurants got picketed. And Parkmoor got it's one and only sit-in.

The couple who came in was well-dressed, articulate and polite. As the sign said to do, they seated themselves. None of the waitresses were willing to be the first to waitress them. For some reason everybody looked at me.

Fountain boy was actually a promotion; I had started as a carhop. I knew the procedure.

I took off my apron, picked up a menu, and treated them the way a good waiter does who hopes to get a good tip from customers who are well-dressed, articulate and polite. Neither they nor I were disappointed by the outcome.

Nothing traumatic happened. No one got arrested. Civil people were treated in a civil manner. The manager shook the man's hand and hoped they would return soon. Only one thing changed - waiting on customers because of race was never again an issue at Parkmoor restaurants. The picketers went up the street.

As the anniversary of Emmitt Till's murder came and went unnoted, suppose I could be proud of my one civil act. But, I only did what civil people do. Mostly I'm just regretful that as my own life went flying forward I never did any more to make this the better world it became. To those of you who did so very much more, I apologize.

David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at kayanddavid@joink.com.


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The town of Sumner, Mississippi, where Emmett Till's murderers were tried and acquitted, has undertaken a reconciliation effort around the anniversary of Till's death. The town is planning a museum and a restoration of the courthouse. There is a brochure showing the key sites in the crime, and markers have been placed at each site. I describe this reconciliation effort at some length in my new book on the 2007 trial of former Klansman James Ford Seale for the death of two black youths in 1964, entitled "The Past Is Never Dead." harrymaclean.com

-- Posted by hnmac on Tue, Sep 1, 2009, at 10:39 AM


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