In the winter of 1971, our little band of merry pranksters had travelled from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Little Rock to attend a concert. I have no idea what the concert was. As cliched proof that I am someone who officially lived through that era, there are a fair number of things that I simply don’t remember. But there are things that I do remember and this is one of them.
Ken, Ted, Tom, Erika and I stumbled into a 24-hour breakfast restaurant in North Little Rock the morning after on a bright, sunny day, made all the more bright because our eyes were not at all accustomed to light. We were the proverbial motley crew. Hippies. Refugees from a college life that afforded us too much privilege and required of us too little diligence, we thought of ourselves as somehow radical, but we were more like the hapless characters from the Wizard of Oz—tin man, cowardly lion, scarecrow and Dorothy. We were lost in a chemically-induced, ersatz emerald city, in need of rescue with no wizard in sight.
I had been the first of the group to fully embrace the “hippie” life. I bought the “tune in, turn on, drop out” message of the era without question. I thought of it as some kind of spiritual quest, but it soon degenerated, as pseudo-enlightenment activity tends to do. First hit’s free, junkies. The devil comes as an angel of light. But I could talk a pretty good radical/spiritual game, my language peppered with references to Aldous Huxley, Richard Alpert, Abbie Hoffman, Tim Leary and a host of musicians who were better poets than philosophers.
I had grown up in Arkansas and had I been born a few years earlier I likely would have channeled my late teen, rite-of-passage rebellion and angst into the Civil Rights movement. That might have truly had some degree of nobility. Thanks to my mother, the innate racism that Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s engendered in its residents was never a problem for me. I have written about this at some length here.
Instead, I threw all that teen spirit (to use a 1990s reference) into sex, drugs, rock and roll, and a fair amount of anti-Viet Nam protest. The sex and drugs notwithstanding, some of my quest had value. At least I was able to convince myself that I was on the vanguard of cultural change.
But mostly I just had long hair, what David Crosby called his “freak flag.”
My pals still looked like the clean-cut fraternity and sorority kids we came from. My hair was long and outrageously curly (but washed). I wore the regulation t-shirt with some sort of self-righteously important message on it, and bell-bottomed blue jeans. In fact, it was the bell-bottom Levis that got me kicked out of the fraternity. Early seventies Greek life took their dress code very seriously.
And so, apparently, did this restaurant. We sat down at a booth and hoped, expectantly, that a kind waitress would bring us the start of a bottomless cup of coffee. She walked by our table a few times, but failed to acknowledge us. The place was not especially busy, and it began to look like we were being ignored. Mostly because we were. I believe they were hoping we would leave but we just sat there. (We shall not be moved, right?) I don’t think we were being stubborn, we just really wanted some coffee and pancakes.
After quite a long time the Assistant Manager nervously walked up to the table and explained that they were unable to serve us, or more specifically, me. If I left, they would happily serve the rest of the group. Mr. Assistant Manager was not a bad guy. He disagreed with the policy but if the owner of the restaurant walked in and I was at a table, he would be fired, maybe even the whole staff—waitress, assistant manager, cook—would be fired. Simple as that. No long-haired hippie types were welcome on the premises.
This was no Greensboro sit-in moment. I was no Rosa Parks or Clara Luper. I could sit anywhere on any bus I wanted. Long-hair excepted, as a white guy I could sit at any counter or booth in any restaurant in these United States. I did not want the kid to lose his job and the waitress was probably a single-mom struggling to make ends meet. So we left.
I would not want this to suggest that my moment of discrimination was in any way comparable to the kind of discrimination and shame that black people of the era were subjected to. But it was an experience that reminded me that treatment of any other human being as somehow less than a valuable child of God is Sin. Capital “S” Sin. My slight annoyance was fleeting. The pain of the black children of God during that time was deep and enduring—a permanent stain on a nation supposedly founded on the idea that, “All men are created equal.”
As we walked out of the restaurant, I looked back at the short order cook behind the counter. He gave me a shrug and a very knowing wink. He was a black man. He knew. He had to work in this oppressive environment every single day. It could not have been easy.
So that is part of why I participate in this discussion. For that guy.
Postscript: There is one more piece of this story that puts a lot of things into perspective. The name of this restaurant chain, which now consists of only one store (down from 1,117 at its peak) was Sambo’s. The story of Sambo’s is an almost unbelievable saga of outrageous business success and incomprehensible tone-deafness if not overt racism. It makes for an interesting read.