Experiment in Fairness
By Bayard Rustin, Set in the U.S.A.
Setting: Bayard Rustin was an African American leader who worked for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in the 1940s and 1950s for equal rights for all Americans using nonviolent actions, principles and methods, foundational in the civil rights movement in succeeding years. When he wrote this story, the terms “colored” and “Negro” were in common use.
Between speaking engagements in a Midwestern college town, I went into a small restaurant to buy a hamburger and a glass of milk. I had not been sitting in the restaurant long before I noticed I was being ignored.
After waiting about 10 minutes I decided that the conflict had to be faced. I moved to one corner, stood directly before a waitress, so she could not overlook me and said, “I would like to have a hamburger.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t serve you, uh, you, uh, colored people here,” she said.
“Who’s responsible for this?” I asked.
She made her reply in two hand gestures—the first indicating a woman standing in the rear; the second, a finger to the lip, an obvious appeal for me not to involve her in any way. I walked directly to the woman standing near the coffee urn in the rear of the restaurant. “I’d like to know why it is impossible for me to be served here.”
“Well, uh, it’s, it’s because we don’t do that in this town,” she stammered. “They don’t serve colored people in any of the restaurants.”
“Then why? Do you believe that doing so would upset your customers?” I then appealed to her to try an experiment in the extension of democracy.
After some hesitation, she agreed to these terms: I would sit in the front of the restaurant for ten minutes, during which time I would not eat my hamburger. We would count the number of people who left or did not come in because of me. If we saw one such person, I would leave. If we did not, I could eat.
I waited 15 minutes. Then she approached me, picked up the cold hamburger, placed a hot one before me and said simply, “What will you have to drink with it?”
I have been given to understand by Negroes and whites who live in that town that Mrs. Duffy continues to serve Negroes without embarrassment or conflict, which is indeed a courageous thing under the circumstances.