Lunch in Selma - Cover

Lunch in Selma

by Jerome Norris

Copyright© 2010 by Jerome Norris

Historical Story: We knew it was hostile territory, but it was seven hours since breakfast and we were hungry. Besides, the law was on our side, right?

Tags: True   Vignettes  

Jim Brinson and I didn't work together frequently. He wasn't part of the regular Selma Field Office rotating crew. But he was down with us in South Alabama for a special assignment, and we found ourselves thrown together for a few days.

It was rare in 1965, even in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, for a black lawyer to be on the job with us in the field. A couple of our supervisory attorneys back in Washington were black, but Jim was one of only a few among the freshly recruited young line attorneys who was a bona fide black man in that early time.

The only thing rarer than black men on the job were women — of any color. Oh, we had secretaries and legal assistants, all of whom were women, but there were only the tiniest handful of female lawyers on the roster.

It was a different era. We had enormous passion for bringing civil rights to the long-mistreated Negro. But in those days, most people — certainly most men — didn't spend all that much time thinking about the rights of women. Their day would come — and soon. But not quite yet.

Jim Brinson was a contradictory sort of fellow for those times. He was something of an aristocrat — at least by my standards. He was from Iowa and had attended college there at Grinnell. He was a Yale Law graduate when most of us were from the state universities, or were penniless full-scholarship overachievers from the national law schools.

Jim's beautifully tailored suits and impeccable grooming proclaimed that, black or not, he came from a moneyed and cultured background. I felt a little intimidated by those expensive suits, and by Jim's height and physical good looks. Both of my suits were double-knit polyester, and my stepfather had worked all his life as a service station attendant.

Still, Jim wasn't difficult to know or to work with.

He was a regular kind of guy, despite being a curiously upscale version of the stereotypical American Negro, circa 1965. Back in Washington, we'd play tennis, with Jim casually holding off two of us hackers at a time with his smooth athletic strokes.

But right now, we weren't back home in Washington. This was Selma, Alabama. It was lunchtime and we were hungry. Jim and I were in the Hertz rental on our way to Montgomery, but Montgomery was a long way off and it was already 2:00 p.m.

There'd been a preliminary court order entered a few days earlier against nine food service operations in the Selma area. Presumably, the proprietors of these restaurants and lunch counters would be prepared, however reluctantly, to serve us despite Jim's race.

We stopped at a place just east of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It wasn't much, but it looked decent. Jim and I went inside and took a booth overlooking the gravel parking lot. There were only a few customers scattered around the dining area. It got kind of quiet, and we got a few stares, but nothing major was going on.

We waited for what seemed like a long time. The two waitresses didn't seem to be all that heavily engaged, but neither was moving to take our order. Still, the waiting time hadn't yet become clearly excessive.

Finally, a big burly guy wearing a full apron came up. He looked amazingly like the Texas diner short-order cook that Rock Hudson had fought with, nine years earlier in "Giant."

The man looked exasperated — upset. He leaned over, rested both hands on our table, and spoke directly to Jim. "Look, I don't want to serve you," he said. " ... but if you insist on it, I will."

Jim looked across the table at me, and my return glance conveyed that the decision was up to him. We figured the guy was violating a federal injunctive order, and we knew now that this would be true, whether or not he eventually served us properly.

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