Charging a "pattern of racism," protesters led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson converged on an Annapolis Denny's yesterday and threatened to try to block the head of the restaurant's parent company from getting an NFL expansion team in Charlotte, N.C.
"If the NFL would not hold the Super Bowl in Arizona because the state wouldn't recognize Martin Luther King Jr., then they are not likely to embrace a franchise whose franchisee engages in overt racism," Mr. Jackson said.
Jerome J. Richardson, a former Baltimore Colts wide receiver, is the chief executive officer of TW Services Inc. of Spartanburg, S.C., which owns the nearly 1,500 Denny's restaurants. Mr. Richardson is the lead investor in efforts to bring a National Football League team to Charlotte.
Charlotte is considered to be among Baltimore's strongest competitors for a team.
Officials who led more than 50 protesters in a four-hour march in the restaurant's parking lot on West Street said that trying to block the football expansion effort is one of several options.
Mr. Jackson said his Rainbow Coalition will set up informational pickets at Denny's restaurants nationwide. "It's only just begun," he said.
TW Services spokesman Coleman Sullivan said the possible football franchise, which Mr. Richardson is seeking through a company called Richardson Sports, is separate from the corporation that owns Denny's.
He referred reporters to a May 29 statement about negotiations between TW Services and the NAACP in which Mr. Richardson said minorities would be given a chance to invest in the team.
But Mr. Jackson, holding a news conference from the back of a pickup truck in the Denny's parking lot, accused company officials of double talk -- blasting discrimination while allowing racist incidents to continue.
"They lie, and they are not credible," Mr. Jackson told reporters. "They say they have a plan to end discrimination, yet every day a new incident occurs. It's in California. It's in Maryland. It's coast to coast."
The protest stemmed from complaints by six black Secret Service agents who have filed a lawsuit alleging they were denied service in April while they were in the city to protect President Clinton.
They said their white colleagues, who were sitting at a nearby table, were served with no problem.
That incident occurred on the same day that TW Services signed a consent decree with the Justice Department to end alleged racial discrimination in California.
On Friday, a black children's choir from North Carolina said its 125 members were turned away at two Denny's in Northern Virginia last weekend.
The company said the two restaurants were understaffed and unable to serve dinner to the entire group.
Also on Friday, a black Glen Burnie man filed a discrimination complaint against a Denny's in Pasadena, alleging that he was served food containing a cigarette butt.
Yesterday, protesters occasionally sparred verbally with customers and other detractors, one of whom held a sign proclaiming: "Denny's does not discriminate. They just serve food late. Jackson Go Home."
"There is no racism here," said Annapolis resident Richard Johns, who is white and held the sign. "They just have awful service. I've waited for a half-hour to get a milkshake."
Standing nearby was Pacer Luckhardt, a white Annapolis resident, who came to the restaurant for breakfast. He said he had mixed emotions watching the protest and news conference unfold by his car.
"I don't know," he said. "To be honest, I don't think it was racism. Service here has always been slow. There are racial problems, I just don't think this is one of them."
Others shouted to Mr. Jackson as he spoke to reporters.
"Why didn't the agents go to the counter and demand service if they were so cotton-picking hungry?" said Judy Dean, a white Annapolis woman.
"The agents didn't go in to pick no cotton," Mr. Jackson shot back, receiving a roar of approval. "The white agents didn't need to go to the counter."
Del. Salima Siler Marriott, who is black and represents Northwest Baltimore, called the incident involving the agents "an embarrassment" to the politicians who flock to Annapolis restaurants during the legislative session.
"This is a statement to Denny's to put an end to the injustice," she told the crowd. "This is Maryland's capital. If we can't get justice here, where can we get justice?"
Company officials, who were at the West Street Denny's yesterday, refused to comment on the protest but handed out statements saying that they were "distressed" over the incident involving the agents.
They also distributed a letter to patrons saying, "Please join with us in recognizing the right of the Rainbow Coalition to be here to express their views and help us honor our American tradition of free speech."
The officials referred to the talks with the NAACP on a "fair-share" agreement that could be signed at the end of this month. That includes more minority-owned franchises, a black on the board of directors and a random testing program in Denny's restaurants nationwide to ensure fair treatment.
But Mr. Jackson complained yesterday that the talks between the NAACP and TW Services would not answer the specific complaints of the Secret Service agents or others.
"We want Denny's nationwide to change its policies," he said. "We're not out to put Denny's out of business. We want to put racism out of business."