19. One of the nice things about fried chicken, besides the taste, is its portability. It’s good hot or cold, and will stand up to some heat before it spoils. This guy probably got a little too excited about getting some chicken to go:
That portability made it ideal for travel. Psyche Williams-Forson put together the story of the “waiter carriers” who sold fried chicken and other goodies to passengers at the Gordonsville, Virginia train stop in the 1800s. They were so well-known for their skills that Gordonsville was known as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” Williams-Forson sees it as an example of African American financial empowerment in a time when there were precious few opportunities for it.
But there’s another side to the story of fried chicken and travel. In a 1976 episode of Sanford & Son, Fred (Redd Foxx) takes his first airplane trip, and is surprised to learn that there will be an in-flight meal, so he won’t need the fried chicken, wrapped in a napkin, that he had brought along in his pocket.
That was based in real-life experience. African Americans commonly brought their own food on trips, not just to save money, but because under Jim Crow, travel in many parts of the country could be brutal, especially across the south.
The annual “Green Book” was intended to help African Americans “save the travelers of his race as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible.”
Across the south, restaurants were segregated by law. If a restaurant did serve both whites and “colored,” the sections had to be partitioned by a high wall, and customers entered by separate doors. Some would allow blacks to order take-out, but they couldn’t eat it there. At food stands, blacks were required to wait at a side window, until any and all white customers were served first.
Segregated service in Mobile, Alabama, 1956
The color photograph above was made by Gordon Parks. He was sent to Alabama by Life magazine in 1956 to document in color the reality of segregation faced by African Americans in everyday life. It was a risky project. Life had to hire a bodyguard to protect Parks. After the photos were published, some of the family members shown in the photos were threatened with violence. One woman lost her job as a school teacher, and under threat of violence, Life paid to get her family out of Alabama and be relocated elsewhere.
Many restaurants wouldn’t serve blacks at all, and not just in the south. Frederick Douglass Opie has discussed the extent of discrimination in New York City and its suburbs in Westchester County, especially before World War II.
This friendly little welcome is from Lancaster, Ohio, in 1938:
Diane Nash, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had grown up in Chicago. When she enrolled at Nashville’s Fisk University in 1959, she was aghast to see segregation in full force: “Travel in the segregated South for black people was humiliating. The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say…that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use the public facilities that white people used.”
In 1960, “sit-ins” started being used to desegregate lunch counters, beginning in Greensboro, and then in Nashville and other cities. Diane Nash was arrested in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961 and spent 30 days in jail. (In Jan. 2015, a judge formally vacated the convictions of the men, the so-called “Freedom Nine.”)
Thugs attacking sit-in demonstrators in Nashville, February 1960
We will look more closely at the story of the lunch counters in a later post. For now, we’re trying to keep the broader picture in mind, namely, the difficulty African American travelers faced in finding food, especially across the south.
When Lyndon Johnson began the legislative arm-twisting that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he frequently used the example of the indignities that the family’s long-time cook, Zephyr Wright, and her husband, Sammie, faced in making the long drive between Washington and Austin. At the signing ceremony, Johnson handed Wright the pen and said, “You deserve this more than anyone else.”
Johnson understood the importance of desegregating the restaurants. He knew that he was not going to get the votes of the southern Senators, all Democrats, so he had to appeal for Republican votes. When the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, from Illinois, balked at including restaurants, Johnson told him in his typically colorful way, “Without those sections there’s no damn civil rights bill worth a fart in a hailstorm.”
Even after the Civil Rights Act made segregation illegal in public accommodations, some resisted. In Georgia, Lester Maddox, owner of The Pickrick cafeteria in Atlanta, gained national notoriety by handing out ax handles to chase away protesters. He became so popular that in 1966 he was elected Governor.
When I think of fried chicken, I like to keep this history in mind. I picture an African American family in the 1950s traveling by car, munching on the fried chicken or bologna sandwiches they’ve brought along, because they can’t be sure where they might find food, or at the end of the day, a place to sleep. Phil Robertson may think “they was happy,” but they weren’t, and when the time came, those infamous lunch counters—the fast-food joints of the day—were one of the first targets for desegregation.
It’s also important to keep this history in mind because history tends to repeat itself. In recent years, across the country from Indiana to Arkansas to Arizona, states have been trying to enact so-called “Religious Freedom” laws that would permit businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But the genie unleashed from that bottle might have even broader consequences. After all, as Ian Millhiser has pointed out, for some people, racial segregation is also a religious principle, and was used extensively to defend segregation back in the Bad Old Days. Do we really want to go back there?