Through The Front Door

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I long thought that my husband, Forrest, should write his story for this column, but since he passed away recently, the task falls to me. I’ll try to tell his story and a little bit of my own.

Forrest, an African-American, grew up in rural Alabama in a family of sharecroppers. He came of age in the late 1960s. I grew up in the same era, but in an affluent Northern suburb. I am white.

On the news, I heard about civil rights marches, freedom riders, and peace demonstrations. But my peers and I were too young to participate, so we protested the small injustices in our own lives. The boys grew their hair long. The girls held a sit-in protesting the rule that forbade us to wear pants to school. We showed up at our junior high in bell-bottoms, sat down in the hallway, and waited for the camera crews to arrive. They didn’t.

In my husband’s hometown, Jim Crow laws were in full force. The courthouse had white and black water fountains in the lobby. No freedom riders visited. Not many older blacks thought much about voting; many could barely read, and they were too busy trying to earn a living. My husband was taught that school was important and teachers were to be respected. No one in his town would have dreamed of holding a protest at school.

Forrest was in high school in 1968, a tumultuous year in all our lives, with the Vietnam War, a bitter election, and two assassinations. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., opened a fault line in the rural South, and everyone was aware of the riots in the cities.

A week after King’s assassination, a teacher Forrest admired asked if he would pick up lunch for him at a nearby res-taurant, a place that served only whites. Blacks could get takeout food by going around back to the kitchen door. For-rest’s teacher was black, and clearly this was where he had intended Forrest to go, although he hadn’t specified that.

On his way to the restaurant, For-rest felt himself in a quandary. Would a teacher really go to the back? It didn’t seem right. Forrest made up his mind; he walked in the front door, a six-foot, well-built boy of 16. Immediately there was a stir. Customers at tables stood up; those at the counter looked over. The owner rushed up to say there were no seats available in the half-empty restaurant.

Forrest said, “I don’t want a seat. I want a takeout sandwich.” There was some hesitation, and then the staff quickly got him one.

They were polite. They even called him “sir,” not “boy.” No one told him he belonged at the back door. As he started to leave, he could almost hear a collective sigh of relief. Walking away from the restaurant, he observed a crowd at the window, staring out at him.

Those eyes bore their fear into his back. Had he acted to protest the killing of Dr. King? Not consciously, but Forrest felt something he had never experienced before: power. A gentle man, he held on to that feeling for the rest of his life.

Last summer we were down in Ala-bama visiting relatives. The restaurant is still there, owned by the same family. Now, of course, it’s theoretically integrated, but blacks tend to boycott it because memories live on. As we drove by, one of my sons said, “Oh, can we eat there?”

His young cousin responded, “Nah. Nobody ever eats there. I think the food is bad.” Vaguely and imperfectly, this is how history is passed down.

—Melissa Connelly, a teacher and writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.