The newspapers really drove me to it. Another civil rights activist was killed in Mississippi. A couple of weeks earlier it had been a black kid trying to protect his grandfather and his mother. The State Troopers shot him.
This time, it was closer to home for me. The victim was James Reeb, a white man and a minister. I was stunned. Reeb was beaten to death by other white people for trying to help black people obtain the right to vote. It made absolutely no sense.
I stared at the newspaper for a long, long time. What could possibly scare people enough to cause them to commit such a hideous crime?
I strongly empathized with James Reeb, even though I’d never met the man. He was older than me, almost twice as old. I wondered how his family was dealing with the loss. I wondered how his church would manage. I wondered if it was all worth it.
Throughout the morning, a verse from the Bible came back to me again and again: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. There was a time when I thought Jesus was only talking about himself in that passage. Now I understood how easily the verse could be applied to people like James Reeb.
I left my office around lunchtime, feeling like I needed the company of other people. I didn’t want to eat alone, but I had no one to call. So I grabbed the newspaper and went to the Springlake Diner.
I slid onto the vinyl seat of the counter stool and spun around to face the grill, feeling a bit like a six-year-old boy, but relishing the presence of others. The cook, a guy with the name Jimmy embroidered on his grease-stained white shirt, dropped an order pad on the counter and asked, “Whatta ya have?” Before I could answer, his eyes glanced down at my folded newspaper. “Whatta waste,” he muttered.
“I beg your pardon?”
He pointed to the headline. “That poor, dumb preacher. Whatta waste that he died for that.”
“You know. He died for such a stupid reason. Registering coloreds to vote? Jesus Christ. Coloreds don’t really want to vote. They’re just causing trouble.”
I found myself in a tough spot. I didn’t know this guy, Jimmy, because I never ate at this diner. As a minister, I felt like I was always in a fishbowl. Anything I said or did might reflect poorly on our church. But also as a minister, and more importantly as a human being, I felt an intense need to honor the fellow preacher I had never known who had fought for his beliefs with his life.
I opened the paper to display the entire article. “Do you think Reverend James Reeb would agree with you?”
“What’s it matter? He’s dead.”
“Yes he is. But the question is, do you think he thought helping blacks achieve the right to vote was a cause worth dying for?”
“He ain’t doin’ nobody no good, now.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “A lot of people are upset about this. It may have tilted the scales in favor of the Civil Rights activists.”
“Jesus. I hope not.”
Jesus might disagree with you, I thought.
“So anyway, whatta ya have?” Jimmy asked, obviously trying to change the subject.
“Cheeseburger, fries and a Coke,” I said.
Jimmy turned toward the grill.
Speaking to his back, I asked, “What cause would you consider worth dying for?”
Jimmy turned back around, still uncomfortable and perhaps now a little annoyed that I hadn’t dropped the subject. “I don’t know. My family, I guess.”
“Would you be willing to die so your family could have the right to vote?”
“They already have that right,”he said curtly.
“Right,” I replied, “but imagine they didn’t. Imagine that powerful political people were trying to keep people from a certain neighborhood or certain income bracket from voting.”
For a moment, I swear I saw a flicker of understanding in his eyes, so I asked him again, “Would you be willing to die so they could vote?”
He was frowning at me, as if I had forced him to go back and rework a difficult math equation that he’d never understood and never cared to use. Then he obviously gave up trying. “I’ll get your burger.”
After that, Jimmy kept his distance. He also kept his back to me nearly the entire time I ate my lunch and read the rest of the paper. He had to face me when I paid my bill at the cash register. He hesitated, then asked, “They couldn’t do that, could they? Take away our right to vote?”
I took my change and replied softly, “That’s what’s happening to the black community.”
His frown came back, and as I left the diner, I prayed that he would try harder to solve that math equation this time around. I prayed that he could.
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