The customer who wouldn't drink out back

Until recently, Perry, Fla., was your typical somnolent Southern town. About the only thing that would bring outsiders to the hamlet of 19,000 in Florida's Panhandle is the annual Forestry Festival.

The talk at Deal's Oyster House, a local diner, usually gets around to college football at some point, even in the off-season, and if it doesn't there's always hunting: The deer in the area are as plentiful as the four-wheel-drive trucks used to pursue them.

But all this was before Talmadge Branch came to town. Mr. Branch, an African-American, was traveling through Perry on his way to Tallahassee a few weeks ago, when he stopped at a bar for a drink. The bartender told him he had to buy his drink at a package store in the back, even though white patrons continued to swig at the bar.

Branch, it turns out, is a Maryland state legislator who didn't appreciate being the target of what he considers a Jim Crow-era form of discrimination. The result is a furor that is turning this once-obscure mill town into ground zero in a modern civil rights battle. At least four investigations of the incident are under way, and everyone from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the fiery civil rights leader, to the Florida legislative black caucus has been to town decrying what they see as a blatant form of racism.

Indeed, the whirlwind of publicity and scrutiny surrounding the incident tells a tale of the politics of modern race relations and raises painful questions about the extent to which discrimination continues in rural pockets of the South.

"It's become almost like the Rosa Parks bus controversy," says Greg Parker, the attorney for the bar owner, unhappy about the din.

Pecans and honey

Perry is the county seat of the third-largest county in the United States, in land area. It is a working-class town whose main employer is the Buckeye Cellulose paper mill. About one-quarter of the residents are black. It's the kind of place where they still have a soda fountain in the local drug store.

Tourists will occasionally stop off for the pecans and honey sold at stores along the highways. When Branch stopped off, he wasn't interested in the local tourist fare.

What did happen on that fateful day, however, is the source of different interpretations, as it usually is in these cases. Branch says he asked the bartender, Patricia Hughes, for a draft beer and was told he could be served on the package-store side of the bar.

There's a back room leading to the store where African-American patrons often drink. Branch has told investigators that he heard a female voice say that "coloreds are served back there."

The bar owners, David and Diane Holton, portray the incident more innocently. Mr. Parker, the Holton's lawyer, says most of the bar's sales are derived from the package store. He says the back room connecting them is available for package store customers to sit and drink, and, "Traditionally, almost universally, it is used by black men who are older and who don't like to listen to country or rock music [playing in the bar]."

On the day Branch visited, Holton had instructed Ms. Hughes to close the bar in the afternoon for cleaning, Parker says. When Branch entered, "there were two people in the bar who she thought would act negatively to a black patron," Parker says. "She said to him, 'I can't serve you because we're getting ready to clean,' and pointed him to the package store."

The investigations

What isn't ambiguous about the incident is the scrutiny that has resulted. The Florida Attorney General's office has charged Mr. Holton with civil rights violations and unfair trade practices. The state division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco has filed a six-count complaint to revoke Holton's liquor license. And the US Attorney for the region is investigating.

"I have not really seen a case like this almost ever," says Allison Bethel, director of the state Attorney General's Office of Civil Rights. "While discrimination is still a sad reality, it's rarely as blatant as this one was. That's what's so shocking about it. This kind of discrimination is the pre-'60s kind of thing."

The incident brings different reactions around this town amid the Southern yellow pine. Since the controversy, Holton has closed the back room. Parkers says several black patrons have signed a petition asking Holton to reopen it, but the lawyer wouldn't supply the petition. "Some of them asked not to use their name because they are afraid of the militant voices in the black community," says Parker. "They are afraid of being beaten up by Al Sharpton."

Bar owner Holton, in fact, sees himself as a victim in the affair. "I'm the one getting mistreated," he said in a telephone interview. "At least give me a trial before hanging me."

The last time Florida had a major discrimination case against a business, it was also brought to light by a patron who called the police. In 1999, the Thai Toni restaurant in Miami Beach admitted to charging only blacks a 15 percent gratuity, because, the owner said, "black people don't tip well." He was fined.

Experts say both incidents point up vestiges of discrimination that are still common in parts of the rural South. Since the Perry encounter, Ms. Bethel says her office has received similar discrimination complaints from areas in northern Florida, but she won't be specific about the locations. "We want to investigate them," she says.

"The standard racial etiquette of segregation has persisted in many places throughout the South as conventional behaviors," says Joe Feagin, a sociologist at the University of Florida. "Whites get used to doing something a certain way, and the blacks go along with it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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