Amid Montgomery's Racial Strife, a Mystery Man Tries to Keep Things Friendly

updated 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dear Mr. Stephens," began a letter that arrived on the desk of Bill Stephens, 40, the amiable general counsel of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, in April of last year. "Unless I miss my guess, this is the strangest proposition you will receive today." The author announced that he was "deeply concerned" about the racial situation in Montgomery, Alabama's capital. In recent months a series of incidents—a bitter municipal election in which race was an issue and a bloody confrontation in a black family's home that left a white police officer seriously injured—had polarized Montgomery. "Outright segregation has disappeared," the letter said, "but...few blacks that I know visit socially with whites, or whites with blacks, in the way that builds understanding between friends. Because we don't know one another, crises thus tend to swiftly open up old wounds." The writer was trying to set up a dinner between blacks and whites in a Montgomery cafeteria. He asked Stephens to attend and read a statement enclosed with the letter. He signed himself "Jack Smith." To this day, nobody knows who he or she really is.

Nearly 100 residents of Montgomery received letters inviting them to the dinner. About half of those came and heard Stephens read Smith's letter, chartering them as the Friendly Supper Club and challenging them to continue each month, with each participant inviting a guest of another race. "I don't know why Jack Smith chose me," Bill Stephens muses in his office across from Alabama's Capitol building. "I'm not an activist, and I don't think anybody would think of me as a liberal, although when I ran for Attorney General of Alabama a few years ago I was the only person running for state office in the history of Alabama who publicly opposed the death penalty. That qualified me as a liberal, I guess."

The Supper Club's mysterious provenance intrigued local media. The publicity led people from all over town to ask about joining, and the club became a local institution that attracted 30 people to July's vacation-depleted supper, but has claimed nearly 200 at some meals. "It was a brilliant stroke," says Stephens, speaking admiringly of the sponsor he has never met. "The concept of an anonymous person creating it and it being in Montgomery just captured people's imaginations."

Not everybody's imagination, apparently. When the members of the club gathered for their 13th dinner, on July 2 at Morrison's Cafeteria in suburban Montgomery Mall, they noticed that the usual array of tables had not been assembled. Three Friendlys went off to find the manager, a man who was new to the night shift. They were Johnnie Carr, a black woman of venerable years whose career in the civil rights movement goes back to the days when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church downtown; Jennifer Johnston, a young white woman who heads Montgomery's Church Women United, an activist group; and Tom Gardner, Johnston's husband, a former reporter for the Alabama Journal. They were confronted by a short, compact white man with arms folded in a stance that would have looked familiar at a school-house door 20 years ago.

"Where can we hang our banner?" Mrs. Carr asked.

"You can't hang up any banners," the manager responded. On his chest a name tag—that universal symbol of instant informality—proclaimed that his name was Larry, but his manner was anything but cordial. "If I let you hang up a banner, I'll have to let everyone hang up banners," he said. "We can't have banners all over the place."

"The tables have always been set up for us before," said Gardner.

"We never allow groups to come in here like that," Larry retorted. Conceivably the only restaurant manager in America displeased at the prospect of seeing his place filling up, he may also have been the only citizen of Montgomery who had not followed press coverage of the suppers in his dining room.

"Are you trying to say you don't want us here?" Tom Gardner asked.

Larry allowed his lower lip to curl, but no sound came out of his mouth; he nodded.

Montgomery is the city where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as the first President of the Confederate States of America and where Rosa Parks and the Reverend King led the boycott that integrated the city's buses. Whites in Montgomery make up about 60 percent of the population; they have held on tenaciously to power in the city government. When Montgomery's conservative Republican mayor, Emory Folmar, ran for governor against the onetime symbol of segregationism, George Wallace, the state's black voters turned out overwhelmingly for Wallace. When Folmar ran for his third term in late 1983, opponents charged that he was using racial code words in his campaign. "In Montgomery," complains Donald Watkins, a black former city councilman, "whites basically make the decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of blacks. It's as if the white power structure here is still mad because the bus boycott happened here and this city gave birth to the modern civil rights movement."

As "Jack Smith" correctly reported, there are deep divisions in Montgomery, and Watkins' opinions are far from universally shared. Sitting at his desk outside the chief's office, police spokesman Major John Wilson disputes Watkins' portrayal of his city. "I don't feel that the racial situation here is building up to a boiling point," says Wilson, the highest-ranking city official who will speak for the record. "And I don't think it was ever as bad as some of the local politicians are making some of the outside people believe."

The incident that sparked Jack Smith's letters—a vicious fight in February 1983 that began when two white policemen chased a young black into a house in a black section of town—is seen in sharply different lights by those involved. Blacks argue that the young man was standing innocently outside the house and say that the armed officers, who were not in uniform, frightened the black family inside, who mistook them for robbers. Eleven family members were charged with crimes after the incident. A mistrial was declared when the first defendant's case came to court; eventually four other defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. None received jail terms, and charges against the others were dropped. The police claim that they were the victims. Sgt. Leslie Brown, who led the raid, was 6'3" tall and weighed 208 pounds on the night of the incident. Now he is a ravaged figure, perhaps 140 pounds, and a few inches shorter than he was that night. He went back on full duty just last May, but he still walks with a hobble: One of his running shoes is built up to compensate for the difference in the length of his legs. The right one was broken that night by a bullet that smashed through his upper thigh, scorched across his abdomen and came out through his left leg. "I still get a little shaky when I talk about it," he says, settling down in what he calls his "office"—an interrogation room with a two-way mirror for a wall and a tiny microphone tucked under each place at the table. "They beat me with everything from a four-by-four table leg to the iron lid of a wood stove. One guy did karate practice on me." Sergeant Brown spent nine months in a body cast after the shooting; he will probably have corrective surgery on his hip later this year and be bedridden again, this time for six months.

To Supper Club member Johnnie Carr, who lives in the heart of the black community, all of Montgomery's residents are victims of the city's racial problems. "I had hoped that when we came into the '80s things would be better," she says. The night before, Mrs. Carr had received a call from a young black who said that his car had been stopped by two police officers, that he had been ordered to step out, had been roughed up, pushed to the ground and kicked by the officers, who charged him with no crime. "I said he could file a complaint with the police department," she reported, "but I told him he'd better file a complaint with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights." (The Montgomery Police Department's Internal Affairs office, which employs a full-time black investigator, says that no legitimate complaints of racially motivated police brutality have been filed this year.)

Jack Smith was right: The lack of communication between blacks and whites in Montgomery has produced no winners or losers, only victims on both sides. Last month the Friendlys decided not to let themselves become casualties of the atmosphere. After a few minutes of debate, they voted not to give Larry the satisfaction of driving them away. They marched into Morrison's en masse for one last supper before moving to another cafeteria next month. They lined up for their Dutch treat meal of fried chicken and chocolate pie and they spent an hour in typical Friendly Supper Club table talk. "They're charging us $600 for an apartment and they say it's cheap," complained Tom Gardner, who is moving north to attend graduate school. Jack and Fafar Guillebeaux tried to persuade their son Hawmi, 5, to eat his vegetables. No one tried to solve the problems of the world over orange plastic trays on formica tables. But the supper did get serious, just for a moment, when Tom Gardner rose to say goodbye. These were his words:

"I want to propose a toast to Jack Smith and the Friendly Supper Club. I think it's the window of Montgomery's future, to draw a shutter down over the vestiges of the dark past that still are with us and present a bright light and fresh air to Montgomery's future." Larry, who had disappeared into the back of the cafeteria, wasn't listening. But someday, perhaps, he will.

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