Redstone Arsenal, outside Huntsville, Alabama, July 1961.
In the brilliant subtropical sun, the military school buildings looked like four bright sugar cubes neatly arranged on the olive-drab lawns. The leaves on the few trees among the buildings hung still and quiet on their branches, the air itself seemingly too stifled by the steamy heat to play among them or to stir the dust on Alabama’s rust-colored ground. Few people lingered outside, and the traffic on the base’s roads remained light, even though it was lunchtime. Most cars were air-conditioned and had their windows rolled up. All was calm and quiet and very bright.
About an eighth of a mile away from the school buildings, across the open space of a grassy field, was a half-barrel-shaped building made of corrugated, gray-painted sheet metal. It was a cafeteria, its shape resembling a giant version of the upper part of the type of barbecue grill one might see at large outdoor parties. In the merciless sun, it may well have grilled all who dared enter, had it not been effectively cooled by an air-conditioning system.
A young man looked lonely and a bit out of place, walking across the sundrenched field. He was the only person one could see walking outside in this heat. His blond hair and blue eyes gave clues to his Northern origins, and the paleness of his face and arms hinted that he had arrived in this area quite recently. He was a twenty-year-old Swede, Leif Karlsson, unaccustomed to the July heat of Alabama.
He was on his way from one of the school buildings, heading toward the cafeteria for lunch. The sun was too hot for comfort for him and its light too intense; it made him squint. As was his habit, he walked with long, energetic strides and his short but brisk walk made him break into a sweat. He was relieved to reach the cafeteria parking lot, but the steamy air above it trembled with the heat of the sun’s rays on the black, newly laid tarmac. It was going to be a relief to get inside in the shade.
As Leif entered the cafeteria, he welcomed the cascades of cool, dehumidified air that gushed from large ducts in the ceiling. He drew a deep breath of the comforting coolness and detected the mingled scents of cleaning agents and smoking vegetable oil. The odor was faintly unpleasant. It made Leif slow his gait, but he continued on.
There was a steady buzzing of voices and laughter in the room; clinking and clattering of plates, glasses, and eating utensils; and scraping of chairs and tables. He looked around to orient himself. Under the arched roof, the cafeteria had a brightly lit rectangular floor space, about sixty feet long and forty-five feet wide. Two end-to-end service counters partitioned its width about equally into an eating area to the left with tables and chairs, and the kitchen to the right. The two service counters swung out into L shapes where they met in the middle of the room, leaving a small shared space for two back-to-back cash registers. The kitchen featured gas-fired stoves, frying surfaces, and ovens, plus several dishwashing basins, all in stainless steel. It gave a clean but sterile impression, and the abundance of steel and the concrete floor helped raise the noise level.
The coolness of the cafeteria brought relief and made up for its sterile ambience and the noise in the room. Leif wiped the slight sweat off his brow and walked up to the line at the nearest counter, took a tray from a stack, and pushed it along the steel rails on the side of the counter. His eyes registered the assortment of salads and ready-made sandwiches on the self-service shelves on top of the counter. Nothing looked particularly appetizing, so he decided to go on to where cafeteria employees served the hot dishes. But the line had come to a stop, and he heard an angry voice from farther up. The words had a heavy Southern accent, and Leif could not make out their meaning. He and several others looked to see who had spoken.
The speaker was a somewhat overweight, middle-aged man of average height. He wore civilian clothes, rather ill-fitting and in need of pressing. His dark-gray pants hung low in the front to accommodate a substantial beer belly. In spite of the day’s heat, he wore a long-sleeve shirt that was more off-gray than off-white. His fleshy face, which Leif saw only in profile, was reddened from anger and from having lived his life under the Southern sun. Leif could not see the target of the man’s ire, because the shelves above the counters obstructed his view. He could see that the man received a plate of food while he stared angrily at the person giving it to him. The man then continued to the cashier, and the line moved on.
The brief outburst had attracted attention not just at the counter but also from the customers at the tables near it. Leif noticed that it had met general disapproval. The disapproval seemed to reach the level of shock and anger in some of the dark-skinned military men sitting right behind the angry man. For a moment, they stopped eating and looked first at him and then at one another almost in disbelief. They shook their heads and continued their meals, making quiet comments among themselves. Leif drew the conclusion that the man had said something that was particularly offensive to them as dark-skinned people. That angered Leif, too.
All across the South, the struggle by black citizens to gain in practice what the Constitution promised them in words had reached a crescendo. The white backlash proved strong and violent, employing abuse, intimidations, beatings, and murders in attempts to “keep the niggers in their place.” But military installations such as Redstone Arsenal were islands of calm and equal rights in a stormy sea of intensifying emotion and racial strife. Racially offensive language and bullying were not permitted, and a black soldier could feel safe here. On a hot July day like this, his immediate concern might be the scorching temperature, not the discrimination and hazards he faced as soon as he left the base.
The line ahead of Leif was not long, and he soon faced the cafeteria worker who had been the object of the man’s outburst. She was a woman about Leif’s age. Her face was very dark and had an African look, with a short blunt nose and full lips. When he first faced her, she still bore a tense and pained look. But as she met Leif’s gaze, it gave way to a questioning and somewhat impatient expression. She apparently was waiting for his order, which was slow in coming.
Oh, yes, his order! The sight of the young woman had sidetracked Leif’s mind. Her eyes that met his were large, with long eyelashes and a shape that was faintly oriental, an impression heightened by high cheekbones. The eyes seemed to draw him in, and he had to force himself to look away and bring his mind back to what he wanted to eat. He scanned the food offerings behind the counter in panic, afraid to seem stupid. Instinctively, he wanted to make a good impression on this beautiful girl. She was fascinating; she made his heart beat fast and gave him a tickling feeling in the pit of his stomach. Relieved, he saw what he wanted.
“Uh…I’ll have the franks and beans,” he said. It did not sound as suave and confident as he had wanted it to. He tried to smile at her, but she had taken her eyes off him and turned to the containers of food. When she placed the plate with his food on the counter in front of him, she did not look up.
“Thank you,” Leif said, hoping to get her attention. The woman gave him a quick glance, nodded without expression, and turned to the next customer in line.
Leif took the plate of food, put it on his tray, and pushed it toward the cash register. He was embarrassed about the confused and awkward impression he might have made on the woman behind the counter. She’s strikingly beautiful, he thought. He wished she had noticed him. But for her, he was just another nameless, forgettable person in the line of customers.
When he sat down at an empty table, his anger at the white man who had said something offensive to her returned. It now felt like a personal insult. The woman is so beautiful, he thought. How dare that fat slob insult her! He looked back at her from his table, hoping to catch her eye. But she was too busy to pay any attention to customers already seated.
He finished his food and placed his tray with the empty plate in a movable rack of such trays. When he left the cafeteria, he hardly noticed the heat outside as he walked in deep thought back to his classroom building.
By evening, the incident still had not left his mind. He wondered how he ought to react to manifestations of racist bullying and oppression. What would he have said or done if he had been right behind the man who had offended that woman? It would have been embarrassing simply to swallow his indignation and remain quiet. He could not in good conscience avoid the issue of segregation by saying that it was not his business, a domestic problem that Americans themselves would have to worry about. If the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was not purely a German domestic issue, how could the plight of blacks in South Africa and the United States be of only local concern?
He could not rationalize cowardliness by saying he was just following orders not to get involved. The incident in the cafeteria had itself lasted a few seconds, but it had left an irritating residue of anger in Leif. He felt great sympathy for the woman. No, it was more than sympathy—he wanted to protect and defend her.