The Red Hen vs the Lunch Counter: Which Values Apply?


The Red Hen Restaurant, Lexington Virginia

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.

A lunch counter sit-in, early 1960s, North Carolina.

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.

Dick Gregory

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.”

The Selma Del, in Selma, Alabama; one of the integration holdouts.

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.

Social media immediately went nuts. The Yelp! Review page for the Red Hen was swamped with pro & con messages.

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.”

Richard Nixon, lifelong Quaker, in his World War Two Navy uniform.

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. . . .

SHS: Yo, Kirstjen, I found this cool farm to table joint in Lexington. Wanna come? Kirstjen Nielsen: Thanks, but I know a great Tex-Mex place just down the street. I could bring you a taco . . .

11 thoughts on “The Red Hen vs the Lunch Counter: Which Values Apply?”

  1. I like the photo caption.

    ‘Restaurant’ derives from the same root as ‘restore’. In Restorative (transformative, healing) Justice, people often break bread together after the ‘encounter’ phase is over and agreement is reached. I don’t know, but perhaps this is part of the key to this conundrum.

  2. The right to refuse service needs to be part of any business’s line of defense: abusive, destructive customers who are disturbing other clients/customers have no legal right to be within a private business. Public accommodations law, which the lunch counter protests happened under, specifically say that businesses can’t refuse service under the basis of belonging to a protected class: in short, you can’t accuse someone of disturbing the peace by being black. That to me is the legal line. The moral line? It’s a lot like how you handle your Facebook friends list, there are principles on both sides of “serve everyone” and “stand up for boundaries.” And to me, framing this in terms of boundaries is useful. That is to say, own your own limits, not as righteousness necessarily, but as personal witness.

    So I might have suggested that another approach was for the manager to go up to Huckabee and say something like, “My principle as a business owner is to serve everyone. But I would be dishonest if I served you without letting you know how viscerally and down to my core I resist what you and the administration you represent stand for. I will feed you, but know that the staff of this restaurant is doing so under flag of protest. Many of them have less privilege than me, less of a buffer to protect them if someone pulls on them the same evil intention you represent to so many Americans. They are my family, my friends and my colleagues, and I respect them far more than you. You should feel free to choose whether you want to eat in a place staffed and owned by people who feel about you that way.”

    1. Nicely said. I have felt conflicted about this since it was first publicized, as have many others. There are similarities to the Colorado bakery and to the Walgreen pharmacist; each a bit differently nuanced. The restaurant manager / owner was courageous to speak directly to Ms Sanders, and your suggestion of how she might have spoken differently is kind and constructive. Thank you for your thoughtful words.

    2. Sounds good. I think my own inclination would have been to serve her, and then kind of hang around her table as time permitted, engaging in unsolicited light banter about race and documentation and family values and her boss and Jesus and whatnot.

  3. Hi Chuck,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I would only quibble with the use of the word “expulsion” in the first graf. My understanding is that Ms. Sanders was not expelled from the restaurant. Rather, the manager asked her to leave, and she complied.

    No police were called. If she felt that her rights were being violated, she should have stayed put and non-violently protested the injustice.

    Perhaps you should correct the wording in your post to reflect this.

  4. Just a few thoughts:

    The statement made by Jack’s lawyer is a lie. Jack does not serve all customers. Mandated non-discrimination is not “government punishment”. The Supreme Court battle has already been lost. How long will we let this go on?

  5. SHS and her party already were served The time to ask her to leabve ,if that is appropriate,, was before they were seated. I too have a problem with asking her to leave. What if I’m at a Bojangles and the owner is a red neck Trump Supporter? I have been served and then the owner asks me to leave because he saw me on local TV demonstrating against detaining young children after they are separated from their parents. St the Soithern Border He doesn’t agree with me. Is that okay? No, I think not.

    1. The ideal time to refuse service might be when the objectionable customer first arrived, but… I’m not sure I would immediately recognize SHS. I know what she looks like from TV, but I also know she looks pretty generic. I can imagine there might be twenty women within a few miles of me who could pass for her looks-wise. If a man who had recently shaved his mustache was ready to order, and only after his gardenburger had been brought to the table did you realize it was Hitler, what then? I can easily imagine that this restaurateur might not have realized who her customer was until SHS had dug into the meal. Indeed, perhaps she only realized it because one of her employees pointed it out.

  6. Sarah claims to be a Christian, moreover, her service to the President is (supposedly) a function of her testimony. The owner of a restaurant takes vocal exception as her witness and testimony — public.

  7. The incident immediately brought this Bible passage to mind:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20)

    I do not like SHS or agree with her views, but I believe she should have been served.

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