A burger and a win over prejudice

The lively chatter instantly ceased as the two police officers made their way toward Bernie.

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In recent years, I've begun to collect stories from those who personally experienced the demoralizing effects of racial segregation in America as well as the tumultuous process of desegregation that followed it. I do this because these stories of ordinary people have received scant attention, and I fear they may be lost if we don't gather them soon.

What has surprised me about such stories is that, while they evoke many feelings on the part of the storyteller (as well as for the listener), part of what can make them so effective in healing our racial divide is that those feelings aren't always about anger, hurt, or sadness.

One story reminded me that sometimes the ignorance behind injustice can actually be the agent that helps to rectify it.

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Prior to his deployment to Korea in the early 1950s, a friend of mine named Bernie was on his way home one steamy day in late spring. He was 19 years old and had grown up in the North.

Having just completed his basic training at a military base in the Deep South, he was eager to get back home to see his family before shipping out to join the US forces overseas.

On this particular day, dressed in his stiff khakis, he was waiting at a bus depot in South Carolina. It was a day of three-digit temperatures before noon, and the starched collar of his uniform was tight around his neck. As he entered the depot, he looked longingly at the air-conditioned waiting room on one side of the building.

Then he turned toward the cramped, stifling room marked "Colored." He went in and politely ordered a cheeseburger at its small counter.

The members of his family, like many African-Americans, had a wide range of skin colors because of a heritage of African, native American, and European ancestry.

The options this gave the young, light-skinned man were quickly brought to his attention when the man behind the counter leaned over to talk with him.

The older man lowered his voice and told Bernie, "Now look, son, there's no reason for you to get that nice uniform all messed up in here where it's too hot to breathe. You're serving your country; you deserve a break.

"Nobody here's gonna know the difference if you go over there with the white folks and have your lunch where it's cool. Go on over and get comfortable for a while before you take that long ride home," he urged.

The roomful of people around them grew quiet as Bernie politely thanked the man and then told him, "Thanks, but really, I'm happy to stay right here." If the surroundings were good enough for those around him, and if they could put up with the discomfort, he thought, then so could he.

Bernie's reply drew warm smiles, nods, and "God bless yous" from around the room.

He was enjoying the first few bites of his lunch when two white police officers strode into the room. The lively chatter instantly ceased as the two made their way toward Bernie.

Bernie braced himself for whatever might be coming. But he was completely surprised by the placating tone of the officer who did all of the talking.

"Now son," the officer began, "you've obviously made a mistake. We know you're probably not familiar with the way we do things around here, probably didn't see the sign. But there's no reason for you to stay here where you surely don't belong. You just take your lunch there and come on over next door where you can be cool and comfortable, like you ought to be."

When Bernie started to explain to the policeman that he was happy to stay where he was, the man behind the counter gave him a warning look.

So Bernie stopped talking.

Then the police officer continued, "Now, we sure don't want any trouble here, son. You'd best come with us and be with your kind, where you belong."

The policeman's tone had grown much sterner, Bernie noticed.

Now there was complete silence in the room. Everyone was wondering what was going to happen next.

Then, in the face of such official insistence, the young soldier shrugged and rose to comply with the policeman's request.

The one who had done the talking stooped to lift Bernie's duffel bag to his shoulder, and the other policeman carried Bernie's plate and glass of milk carefully.

Each set of eyes in the room watched the two white police officers accompany the young black soldier deferentially, as if they were escorting a visiting dignitary.

But the most memorable moment came after the room's double doors closed behind the three men. There was another beat of silence, and then the entire room broke into a chorus of delighted cheers and applause.

Bernie, who's now a grandfather, says that he dreamed that many of his ancestors were cheering right along with them.

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