He sits at the counter with his back upright, gaze forward, looking at the menu through his horn rimmed black glasses. There is no smile on his face, no warmth to his demeanor. He’s rehearsed this moment many times over, but practice isn’t the reality of protest. In practice he knows home awaits.
A friend asked him earlier in the week, “Why? You’re twenty-four, you’ll be starting law school in a few months. Why go to jail or worse, be beaten and even killed? Shouldn’t somebody else take part in the sit-in?”
The question is fair, one that Jimmy has pondered often. The answer was simple, the history complicated. Generations of his family endured pain and murder. His father spent many days in jail, mother did too. And his mother endured the lynching of her father, which happened when she was too young to remember. Jimmy never met him. But felt his presence all around the home. He knew that grandpa Louis was a big man, 6’5’’ or so. That he could hit a baseball farther than anyone in Alabama. Maybe even the whole country. An injury, then a second child, and life responsibilities called him home. And Jimmy knew that grandpa Louis was kind and gentle, that he loved his girls, but that he was also tough and loathed bullying, always standing up for family and friends, even strangers.
Jimmy’s mother, Ella, was three when her father was lynched. For her mother, this finally soiled life in the south to a point she had to leave. She buried her husband and the next day took her two daughters up the dirt path to the main road into town, bought bus tickets and headed north to Boston, where they eventually settled in Dorchester.
In Boston her mother cleaned homes. Then at night, every night without exception, she sat with her girls to read. They read everything. If the book was at the library, it was bound to end up in the small wooden bookshelf in the corner of their one room apartment. And then there was that special day once a year, when she’d take the girls to the local bookstore, and each could pick one book to buy. Ella loved that day and kept all those books in a special bookshelf at every home she lived in.
Ella went to Harvard and became a journalist. She wrote stories about race and like her father, stood up to any talks of racism. Ella had the demeanor of grandpa Louis. Kind to all, yet not one to shy from conflict. It wasn’t discussed much, but she had been in her share of fights as a teenager. Quick with a punch at anyone who spat a racist comment. And even though they were living in the north, there was no shortage of those. With time though she adopted the nonviolent resistance practices of Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement.
She, nor his father, who was also a journalist, pushed Jimmy into civil rights protesting. Then again neither had to. Always curious by the photograph his mother kept on her desk of Ida B. Wells, one of her heroes, he read Ida’s works while in his early teens. And of course he read what his father and mother wrote. You can almost say he was born to protest for civil rights. It was the air of his home.
“Ma’am, I’d like to order please,” Jimmy says to the woman behind the counter.
“You can’t. You know you can’t sit here.”
“Ma’am, I’d like to order please.”
“I’m going to call the police if you don’t move.”
“Ma’am, I’d like to order please.”
Out of the corner of his left eye, Jimmy sees a man walking towards him. Others are getting up and coming as well. A crowd forms around Jimmy and the two other protestors sitting next to him.
“You heard the woman, boy. Move,” says the man who Jimmy first noticed walking over.
Someone takes a bottle of ketchup and dumps the contents on Jimmy’s head. The sugar comes next. Then a pancake from a table nearby. Maple syrup follows.
Jimmy just sits there. “Ma’am, I’d like to order please,” his voice unfazed by the crowd.
That same man, the one Jimmy noticed first, is now face to cheek with Jimmy. Jimmy turns his head towards the man. He can see the rage in his eyes. The man is pointing his finger, yelling something better left unsaid. Then he slaps Jimmy in the face. He grabs Jimmy by the jacket and pushes him to the ground. People start kicking and punching Jimmy.
He doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t resist. Curling up, doing his best to shield himself, he takes the blows with thoughts of progress and change. He knows this is a step in the right direction. And he is willing to take any part necessary and any part that someone else was taking in the fight for civil rights.
This was his answer to his friends question. That’s why he drove down. That’s why in this moment he is the on the ground. He wouldn’t tell his mother, picturing her worried look when he first told her of going to the south to protest. She asked him not to, but to no avail. Jimmy was like her. Stubborn when his mind was set. And though she had taken similar risks in life, watching her son get into the car left her with motherly worries. But she understood and was proud of him.
Then the beating stops. His two other protesters, two women similar in age to him, but local to the south, who were not beaten in this protest, help him up. Then the three of them walk out. They walk towards a small room in a friends home that serves as headquarters. There they will get cleaned up and then start practicing. The next sit-in awaits.
- “I’d like to order please.” is a historical fiction short story from the U.S. civil rights movement. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
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