I can’t deny it: I’m feeling conflicted about the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders (hereafter SHS) from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington Virginia this weekend.
On the one hand, the report of it sets off alarms and bring back vivid memories from my young activist years. Then most restaurants, especially in the South, were racially segregated. And it took long hard months of protests (that had really started on a small scale years earlier) to begin to break through and open up this part of public space to nonwhite Americans.
Soon after, when a major Civil Rights bill was moving through Congress, one of the toughest, longest fights over it focused on the provision that would make “public accommodations:”(especially restaurants, lunch counters, stores and hotels) open to all regardless of race, religion, gender, etc. And those of us who supported it were thrilled when this provision was voted in.
Rising comedian Dick Gregory managed to wring rueful jokes out of all this:
“We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, `We don’t serve colored folk here,’ and I said, `Well, I don’t eat colored folk nowhere. Bring me some pork chops.'”
And: “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
So when the great Civil Rights Act was finally passed in the summer of 1965, one of its first and most visible impacts was the opening up of “public accommodations” to hungry customers of all shades and denominations.
Some places resisted. There were some court fights, but the segregationists lost. More than six months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the first integrated group into the Selma Del restaurant in Selma, Alabama. As a rookie civil rights worker, I followed him in.
The rule now was that: if a customer was orderly, she or he as a member of the public, deserved to be “accommodated” in a public business like a restaurant, equally with all others.
When I look back at all this, I’m uneasy about seeing SHS ejected from the Red Hen. It’s open to “the public”; she’s a member of the public. So if she was behaving herself, the staff should take her money and give her the food; suck it up about her politics and lies.
Otherwise we could be sliding back, not to the ’60s but toward the segregated ’50s. Social media, as this notice on the Yelp! review page, was all over it.
But now, in 2018, there’s another side to this situation, courtesy of the U. S. Supreme Court, and its decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which came down earlier in June.
The Court upheld the refusal by Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, to make a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding because of his anti-gay religious beliefs. His lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, said
“Jack serves all customers; he simply declines to express messages or celebrate events that violate his deeply held beliefs. Creative professionals who serve all people should be free to create art consistent with their convictions without the threat of government punishment.”
I’m a strong supporter of gay rights, so I differ sharply from Jack Phillips on that point. But I’m also a Quaker, and for me the issue of religious liberty is not a simple one.
Cakes I could take or leave. But when it comes to some other huge issues– in particular, going to war or helping the government pay for our many wars– a venerable Quaker tradition tells me: Quakers don’t do war. And we don’t pay others, through our government, to make wars for “us.”
Sure, not every Quaker follows this imperative, which we call a Testimony. (I’m looking at you, Richard Nixon.)
But many have, down through 360 years of wars. More than a few have endured persecution or worse for refusing to fight or pay war taxes. Even many here in North Carolina. Our Quaker “religious liberty” in this area, such as it is, has come hard and is still contested.
Besides individual war refusal, numerous Quaker businesses, large and small, have done their best to avoid war-related contracts, customers and profits. (Cadbury Chocolate was one; you couldn’t make bombs with cocoa.)
And at the other end from Big Cocoa, there’s puny me: twenty years ago, I was a part-time announcer at a campus public radio station. That station, despite being technically “non-profit,” ran many commercials, euphemised as “underwriter IDs.” And I read many of these between classical music pieces.
One day the station manager gave me a script to read, for an ROTC recruiting spot. I looked it over. In another life, I had been in ROTC. But that was then. I’d been a peacenik Quaker for a long time since.
The spot, like most, promised money and adventure, and didn’t mention war, killing or dying. Reading it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I swallowed hard and went to the manager’s office. I told her I couldn’t read this spot on the air. It was a religious thing.
I could tell she thought I was nuts. But she knew, and I knew, that such religious convictions were supposed to be “accommodated,” under the same Civil Rights Act of 1964 that opened up the lunch counters.
I gave her a way out: if she recorded the spot, I would play it, like all the music and other spots. To me that was like delivering mail (which I had also done); I didn’t censor people’s mail, and I wasn’t trying to censor the station’s messages. I just couldn’t “speak” that one.
So she taped it, I played it, and it was fine; or at least okay. Probably the smallest achievement in modern Quaker peace work.
Even so, with my Quaker hat on, it’s not so far from that radio station (“open,” in its way, to the “public”), to the Red Hen. From the restaurant’s description, its staff thinks of their food as art, or connected to the earth and their “values.” The co-owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, wasn’t eager for a face-off. She told the Washington Post that
she knew — she believed — that Sarah Huckabee Sanders worked in the service of an “inhumane and unethical” administration. That she publicly defended the president’s cruelest policies, and that that could not stand.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson said. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
So Wilkinson, after consulting with her staff, asked SHS to leave: “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation. I said, ‘I’d like to ask you to leave.’ ”
SHS and her party left. Wilkinson didn’t charge for the food they had already eaten.
Since I’m a liberal kind Quaker, I’m mindful of my heritage (been with it 52 years now), but not a fan of hard and fast rules. Still, situations can come up when it seems your deep values are confronted directly, up close. And then, it’s like those anti-terrorism billboards: you see something and it’s time to decide if you’re going to say something, or not.
Wilkinson wasn’t seeking publicity about this encounter. But one of the staff left a note for the morning crew with the cryptic meme: “86 Sara (sic) Huckabee Sanders.” In restaurant jargon, “86” means to refuse service to someone. He snapped a photo of it, put it on his Facebook page; from zero to viral in a few hours.
If I was running the Red Hen, or was simply a server carrying a loaded tray, would I be able to uphold my civil rights side, and carry & serve it to SHS with a stiff smile? Or, would the Quaker reflexes kick in as with the ROTC spot, to say — more like Colorado Jack Phillips than I might have expected — “No cake in Colorado, and no plate for SHS at the Red Hen”?
What’s the determining frame here? Public accommodation civil rights, open to all the “public”, in a way that many in my generation struggled & suffered to gain? Or an arena of moral witness, where a stand had to be made?
What say we do lunch, and talk it over. . . .