In Denny's Case, A Call For Reason


June 13, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

The Rev. Leroy Bowman has watched the pickets an protests at the Annapolis Denny's with the wise eyes of one who has seen this all before.

He doesn't believe much in pickets any more. Indeed, he put down his own sign more than 30 years ago, the day he realized what the marches he started were doing to the owner of a whites-only restaurant on Main Street.

"I remember seeing that white man in there and thinking, he's probably got a family and children to feed. Yet here I am keeping money out of his pockets. And I call myself a Christian!

"I thought there must be a better way."

He still does. At age 84 and after a lifetime in civil rights, the pastor of First Baptist Church on West Washington Street has come to the conclusion that, quite apart from his own aversion to confrontation, pickets and protests have done as much good as they can do.

"We've gone through that stage," he says. "Now we're at the point where we need to negotiate. We need to talk in terms that are reasonable. I don't think it's fair for me to hold you responsible for what your forebears did; you don't know anything about that. So let us let bygones be bygones. Let's be fair.

"Let me list what I want: a good job, safety, a good school for my children. Then use all our effort to see if both of us can't get what we want.

"Let's wipe the slate clean, forgetting those things 'which are behind me,' as Paul says. I can think of things that make my blood boil. But we can't go back and fight the Civil War. So we have to start from where we are, and try to get along."

Much has been written and said about race relations in Annapolis these past few weeks, but nothing more eloquent and sensible than this.

Sadly, the Denny's debacle proved that we are a long way from the reasonableness and fairness Mr. Bowman talks about.

Six Secret Service agents claim they were denied service because they are black, and what happens? Black activists, led by the ever-abrasive Rev. Jesse Jackson, presume the restaurant's guilt, while many whites rush to blame the problem on poor service, refusing to consider even the possibility that discrimination might have occurred.

Black activists march outside the restaurant while Mr. Jackson pledges to avenge the Annapolis incident by blocking Denny's parent company from getting a National Football League expansion team.

Then, as if to justify complaints that blacks blame everything on racism, a Glen Burnie man files a frivolous lawsuit against the Pasadena Denny's, claiming he was served a cigarette butt in his hash browns. He complained, and Denny's gave him a free drink and food -- hardly proof of discrimination.

Mr. Bowman shakes his head at all this. "Wherever there is evil, people should be made aware of it," he says. "But you have to be sure of the facts in the case. You shouldn't go purely on emotion. You should be sure of the facts."

Years ago, he, too, was driven by emotion -- by out-and-out fury at the daily injustices black people suffered. As a child growing up in rural Tidewater Virginia, he wondered: "Why was it that opportunities, surroundings and circumstances were so vastly different for blacks and whites? Why do they hate me? I haven't done anything."

While never a militant -- his nature prevented him from ever being that -- Mr. Bowman did his share of lashing out. Society was still segregated in 1960, the year he boldly walked in to the old Bus Terminal Restaurant (now site of the Annapolis Loews Hotel) and asked to be served. After the manager threw him out, Mr. Bowman led pickets of segregated restaurants, forcing whites to pay attention to the intolerable two-tiered social system they had created.

It was the right time for confrontation. The civil rights message was fresh, and people were listening, even if the message went down hard.

But even then Mr. Bowman realized the danger of succumbing to generalized anger against whites. If racism was ever to end, it wasn't enough to make whites look past his color; he had to do the same thing. It wasn't enough to vent his own emotions; he had to listen to what the other person had to say, too.

"I was sometimes charging people with racial discrimination, and it wasn't necessarily so."

Once, he remembers, he became furious when the local newspaper church listings identified his church as "black only." He confronted the editor and found that the man hadn't meant to offend at all. He thought he was helping blacks by keeping them from stumbling into churches where they might be treated badly.

Mr. Bowman asked him to change the notices anyway. "But what said was reasonable. Reasonable."

He prays for reasonableness often these days.

Is discrimination still a problem worth discussing? Absolutely.

So discuss, the wise pastor tells us. Negotiate. Listen, and be fair.

We have to start from where we are, and try to get along.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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