The year was 1967. The place was Jackson, Tennessee. I was a college freshman about to learn a lesson.
The campus of Union University was not overly crowded on the weekends back in 1967. By the way, this was the old campus, the one that looked like a place of learning. I lived in Adams Hall, a dorm in which the ground floor rooms were reserved for the basketball players. On any given weekend, the dorm would be vacated by most of the students, leaving only the basketball players and a few of us who lived too far away to drive home for the weekend.
Jackson was a great college town . . . if you were a parent. It wasn’t very large, there wasn’t a lot to do, and there were very few places in which one could get into real trouble. As a result, most of us who stayed on campus over a weekend stayed on campus.
Late one night, the few of us in Adams Hall who didn’t have dates were huddled around the one TV set in the lounge. Cafeteria fare on the weekends was not even fair. Around 10 p.m., I called out to the gathered group of TV watchers, “I’m hungry. Anyone want a burger?” Lonnie replied. “I do.” Lonnie was a basketball player and had on occasion shared my room when his bed was needed for a hot recruit who was being wined (grape juiced . . . it was a Baptist school) and dined. He was one of the good guys. He didn’t drink. He didn’t sneak girls into his room. He didn’t cuss. He didn’t even get into fights on the basketball court. He was one good basketball player.
Lonnie and I jumped in my 1963 Ford Fairlane 500 and headed out to the Burger Chef. It was crowded. Apparently, lots of folks in Jackson had a late-night yen for a burger. We parked and walked in. From the size of the crowd, I suspected we would be in line for several minutes. We weren’t.
As the water parted at the Red Sea for Moses, the crowd parted for Lonnie and me and the sound of laughter and talking ceased. Before us lay a clear path to the counter. Hey, I thought, these folks must all be Union basketball fans, and they’ve given us a chance to go first. I stepped to the counter, willing to take advantage of the fans’ generosity. “Two burgers, two fries, and two cokes,” I told the guy behind the counter.
“You want two cokes?” the guy asked.
“Yes. One for me and one for my friend.”
“We don’t serve his kind,” I was told, and the silence grew louder.
It was the South and it was 1967 and there was unrest in lots of places. Dr. Martin Luther King was making a lot of noise, though that would be stopped a few months later in Memphis, which was just 80 miles away. I should have known. I didn’t. I had played football with Suggs. I had been with my father as he looked after Aunt Marie. Southeast Missouri in the sixties was not prejudiced-free, but somehow I had escaped both becoming prejudiced and understanding that I was supposed to feel different about people whose skin was a different color than mine.
On any given night during basketball season, Lonnie was a star who could bring a whole gymnasium of spectators to their feet cheering. On a non-basketball night outside the gymnasium, my friend was not welcome.
I was ready for my first fight for racial equality. We had a right to be there and to order our food. Lonnie laid a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Let’s get out here.” I started to protest. Lonnie pulled me out of the door and toward the car.
“That’s not right, man!” I shouted at Lonnie as we sat in the car, the eyes of those inside the Burger Chef still staring at us.
“Tell me about it; but I don’t want to die tonight,” Lonnie replied. “You still want something to eat?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Follow my directions and I’ll take you where we can get a real hamburger.”
A few minutes later, Lonnie and his white friend were seated in a dimly lit restaurant eating the tastiest burgers I’d ever eaten. The place was full of people and noise, and I was the only white person there. The music and the talking never stopped. No one questioned my right to be there. They knew Lonnie and I was Lonnie’s friend. That was enough to make me welcome.
That was the night I lost my innocence . . . the night the blinders came off . . . the night I saw the darkness in “my” people and in myself. I’ve been working on increasing the light ever since. It’s still not as bright as it needs to be.