Jim Elliott

As I write this, it is Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We have holidays to celebrate great people and great accomplishments. As time passes the great people seem to become even greater, but the magnitude of the great deeds, having been accomplished, seems to shrink as time passes, memories fade, and the participants die.

As great as Martin Luther King was there are so many others who made sacrifices of time and life whose names and deeds should also be celebrated on this day.

There are incidences too, of actions taken whose motives were not understood at the time but revealed only later for what they were and how they changed lives. In this case, my life.

It was 1960, and a friend and I were playing pool and drinking beer in a bar in South Florida. We were both 17, and should not have been in the bar, nor were we wanted in the bar, but we were not asked to leave. The bar was in the “Colored Town” section of Boynton Beach, and we were two Northern white boys taking advantage of our skin color.

That put the Black bartender in a very awkward position; he was breaking the law by serving us but kicking us out might have caused him unpleasant repercussions. We knew this, that’s why we were there. We played a couple of games of pool with one or two of the Black customers and then left to get something to eat.

There was then a chain of hamburger joints called Royal Castle where you could get fifteen cent hamburgers fried with onions. They were small, but they were delicious, and we usually ordered three at a time, which was called a “trip”.

As we were sitting inside at the counter we saw one of the men we had been playing pool with waving at us from outside by the take-out window. It was against the law for Blacks to eat in a “Whites Only” restaurant and the only place Black people could order food was outside at what was always referred to as the “N….r” window. Unthinking, we waved to him and told him to join us at the counter, which, amazingly, he did.

As we were talking the place became incredibly silent. The patrons—all white—had left and the cook and counterman were standing as far away from us as they could get. In a very short time two police cars arrived and the officers escorted my friend and me outside They escorted the Black man outside, too, but separately from us. We were Northerners, and the officers took that into consideration.

“We have different ways of doing things here,” they said, and sent us home. They put the Black man in a cruiser and drove away with him. I do not know what became of him. I doubt that they just took him home, but whatever happened to him was our fault. But we were not ashamed of ourselves, we were let off because we were white.

The shame came later, years later as we realized the danger our actions put him in. I still feel the guilt.

So when I think of Martin Luther King Day, I think of that man at the Royal Castle and the millions of other Blacks who suffered arrest, lynching, and the mere daily insults and indignities because of their skin color—a condition of fate and fortune. And I think of two white kids who finally figured out that they had done something wrong.

In those days in the South there were bathrooms marked “White” and “Colored”, as were drinking fountains and bus station waiting rooms. The front seats of buses were forbidden to Blacks. If the bus was full and a white person got on a Black was expected to give them their seat.

Life is better now in the South, for whites and Blacks alike. It is better because of the actions of, yes, King and others like him, but like all things, the actions of millions of unsung brave men and women. It is a work in progress, never finished, but getting better.