Now that a Starbucks bathroom near Rittenhouse Square is the focus of international attention, I was going to tell you about what happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I was making a deposit at my bank and asked to use the bathroom. The teller said the bathroom wasn’t for the public. I let it go, although mentally I was screaming, “I am not ‘the public,’ I am a customer!”
But then something that Philadelphia civil rights lawyer Michael Coard posted on Facebook caught my eye. Were the cops in the ’60s right to arrest the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for “the nonviolent crime of trespass?” he asked.
I was in that situation in those years myself, and my answer is yes.
It was 1962 and the place was Cambridge, a strictly segregated town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that was as overtly and violently racist as Mississippi.
On a Saturday morning in October, four white college students — each in night school, each with a full-time day job — arrived in town in a two-door, two-tone 1958 Studebaker President, with me behind the wheel. Our destination was a black church where we would be fed, trained in nonviolence, and offered a piece of the floor, where we would sleep.
We were from Brooklyn, and we were there because peaceful protesters had been beaten by crowds. The previous week, in an attempt to integrate the notorious Choptank Inn near Cambridge, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been pulled inside the roadhouse and beaten to a pulp.
A call went out for help, and hundreds of people, mostly students like us, responded.
Driving into Cambridge, I saw a neat town — nice streets, nice homes … until we crossed Race Street.
The other side of Race Street was not paved. There were broken sidewalks, no streetlights.
“No,” I thought. “It couldn’t be that obvious.” But it was: Race literally was the dividing line between white and black Cambridge.
The Freedom Marchers’ daytime plan was to have groups of whites and blacks sit down in segregated luncheonettes and restaurants on Main Street, thus integrating them.
The town was teeming with “outsiders” — or “troublemakers,” as the locals called us. There were Cambridge cops, who were hostile; Maryland State Police, of whom we were wary; and guys in white shirts shooting 8mm movie film. They were FBI, a comforting presence.
What we did was choreographed: An integrated group would walk in and sit at the counter or at tables, with state police watching.
The owner or manager would order us to leave. The leader of each group would state that the Maryland Trespass Act had to be read to make it official. The owner had a copy ready.
The law was dense and filled with legal terms. If the owner struggled, our leader, usually a college student, would help him read the hard words. Inside the luncheonette — its name escapes me now — we suppressed snickers as one of our group helped the nearly illiterate racist read. Behind us, some state cops impatiently slapped batons against their legs.
Once the act was read, we were trespassers. The cops stepped forward. We were told to leave or be arrested. We left.
So, Mr. Coard, the cops did what they are supposed to do — they enforced the law. They did their job. When Dr. King broke the law, he not only expected to be arrested — he wanted to be arrested. That drew more people to his cause. You know that.
Those who had bail money or time they were willing to spend in jail remained seated. Those like us who chose to avoid arrest left — and walked into the next restaurant, where we repeated the sit-in. A few dozen people were arrested.
After a boxed chicken dinner at the church, we formed a line about four abreast and 100 yards long and went out to integrate the Choptank Inn. As we walked down the highway shoulder at night, curses and bottles were hurled at us from passing cars.
The Choptank was a sprawling place, about 30 yards off the highway, menacing under the night sky. Our plan to get in and sit-in was thwarted because the white patrons inside had locked the doors. We couldn’t get in. To tell you the truth, I was glad. Getting inside the Choptank was begging for a beating.
As we walked back to the church, we sang “We Shall Overcome” and other freedom songs.
We were still singing songs and hymns with our coffee and biscuits, and then we fell peacefully asleep.