More than twenty years ago, I found myself in a Pizza Hut at lunch time. Ordinarily, I would not choose Pizza Hut for lunch, but, waiting for LensCrafters to finish my new glasses, I had first tried a Subway where several people stood at the counter while the sole worker complained loudly into a telephone that he was alone in the store, and there was no way he could do a special order. He was still complaining into the phone when I gave up and left. I was tired, hot and pregnant, and so hungry and dehydrated, I dragged myself to the first available alternative. Like a good Presbyterian, I figure there is a reason for everything, and I think I was driven to that Pizza Hut to observe a remarkable scene.
Over my enormous pebbly plastic tumbler of ice water, I watched as two women entered the store and sat down together. They wore smart outfits which suggested they must work in an office, maybe an insurance broker’s, or a bank. The waitress who greeted them and took their orders was rather a raw-boned creature with bleached-blonde hair pulled back a little too tight from an angular face. She gave the ladies their drinks and brought their lunches. The two ate and headed back, I suppose, to the office.
So what? Well, one of the office workers was white, and the other was black. The waitress looked the part of a redneck. And it was all perfectly ordinary. That was the remarkable part to me. Remarkable, because I was born in 1950, grew up in Florida and remember the lunch counter sit-ins of the Sixties. Black students, dedicated to non-violence and human dignity, sat at “white only” lunch counters in “five and dimes” in several cities and asked to be served. Occasionally, they were, but sometimes they sat all day.
In 1963 came a low point of cruelty, a high point of courage, and a turning point in the movement. A mixed group of black and white sat at the lunch counter of the Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth’s. Refused service, they stayed and waited. This group was soon pressed by a mob of young white yahoos with rolled sleeves and cigarettes. Not content with screaming insults, the young men began to anoint the sitters’ heads with sugar, ketchup, salt, mustard. This made the news. There’s a well-known photograph of the young heroes and their tormentors. I think this image made many people see the inhumanity of racism and the nobility of the movement inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. It had that effect on me. Thirty years later, I compared that tension to the ordinariness of the lunch scene in front of me. I called down a blessing on the brave pioneers and on these three women. How ordinary. And how splendid.