Justice Achieved with a Fist

It was 1958 and I was 8 years old.  The United States was still a nation divided.  The racial conflict found its expression in Jim Crow laws.  In the South, you could still see signs of Whites Only and separate water fountains for Negroes and Whites.  It was in this environment that I found myself in Tupelo, Mississippi with my father, mother, and older brother.

We were on our way to Florida from Kansas City for a family vacation.  A few miles outside of Tupelo on a two lane asphalt road, our brown, 1958 Oldsmobile blew a tire.  In the process a lug bolt broke making it difficult to mount the spare tire.  After assessing the situation, my father, a skilled mechanic, decided to remove the wheel plate that held the tire to the axle.  He and I would walk to Tupelo to find a garage.  It was July and I could feel the heat from the road through the thin soles of my Converse tennis shoes.  It was one of those hot, humid days that allowed you no escape.

We passed cotton fields where we saw the black faces of sharecroppers against the white blossoms of cotton as they bent over plants pulling their harvest from bolls of dry shells.  Dad explained the process.

On the horizon, we could see the familiar sign of a Sinclair station.  As we approached,  we could see it was not only a filling station but a garage with a small market.  Upon entering, we hesitated, twenty sharecroppers stood between us and the counter.  Suddenly, I felt the firm grip of my father’s hand around my hand.  The gesture created more fear than security.  Why was he holding my hand, I thought.  Suddenly from the counter someone shouted, “White man.”  A path opened and we walked to the counter.

In the midst of this sea of black faces, I felt conspicuous – I felt exposed for being white.  I also felt very thirsty.  My dad caught me staring at a pop machine in the corner of the room.  He handed me a quarter and nodded as if to say, “Go ahead; get a drink.”  I walked confidently through the crowd and put my quarter in the coin box.  I lifted the lid and felt the blast of cold refrigerated air hit my face.  Before me soda bottles hung like soldiers in single file on tracks with an opening at each end.  After a few seconds, I grabbed an Orange NEHI.  I quickly thrust the top of the bottle into the chrome opener below the coin box.  As I put the round opening of the bottle onto my parched lips, I could see a boy about 5 years old staring at me.  After my initial gulp, I tilted the bottle in his direction and said confidently, “Would you like a swig?”  There was a collective gasp in the room.  The white man behind the counter shouted, “Don’t you do that boy!”  I looked at my dad as if to say, “Why not?”

Suddenly I saw a look on my dad’s face that I had seen before and it was a look that clearly telegraphed something bad was about to happen.  He grabbed the man behind the counter and slammed his face into the cash register and in a single move opened the cash register drawer.  He took out three quarters and with an underhand pitch threw them to me.  I caught two and one fell to the floor.  He lifted the bloody face of the clerk off the register and said, “He is my boy and he is going to buy that boy and the other boy by the door a soda.”  He then asked, “Do you have a problem with that?”  “No sir,” said the clerk.  Suddenly the sharecroppers moved out of the store and we followed them, me clutching desperately to my orange soda in one hand and my father with the other.  The sharecroppers formed two lines and we walked between them.

“Dad,” I asked, “what happened?”  He looked and me and said, “You have the freedom to give that boy a drink and he should have the freedom to take it.  That’s what happened.”  We walked back in silence to the car and we said nothing to mom and my brother,  Ron.  Dad mounted the spare and drove with one fewer lug bolt.

Mom asked what it cost, he said with that James Copple wry grin, “75 cents.”  That was my introduction to the price of Justice or Justice achieved with a fist.  It took some time for me to understand that lesson from a veteran of the “The Greatest Generation.”  I still think of it as I stare inequality down in remote places of the globe and wonder, what is the price or cost of justice?

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