Popcorn and Picketing

“Are the picketers out today?” a voice on the telephone asked, already knowing the answer. When the expected “Yes” response came, the caller replied, “Okay, then we won’t be coming to the movies today. They make the lines too long.”

At the time, my dad was the manager of one of the Lichtman movie theaters, a chain of segregated theaters in Washington, DC and across Virginia. The movies were a major form of entertainment. So, it wasn’t unusual for a group of us to be munching on popcorn and hot dogs and drinking cokes during a Saturday matinee at the Booker T, named for Booker T. Washington or the Walker, named for black entrepreneur Maggie L. Walker. We didn’t know that they got the movies a little later than the white theaters  only about ten blocks farther down Broad Street. And because we couldn’t go

Loews interior
The interior of the Loew’s Theater

inside those movie houses, we didn’t know of the opulence of their interiors. Many of the whites only theaters truly were old Hollywood movie palaces, Perhaps the most distinguished in Richmond was the Loews Theater that opened in 1928. It was the Loews that was called that day.

The voice on the phone was that of Debby Anderson Smith, one of my Forever Friends. Debby was only in junior high school when she made those calls. Remarkably, at the young age of 12, she had figured out a meaningful way to be a part of the civil rights movement. She was the youngest of three children. Her sister, Anna was in college, and her brother Bucky was in high school in the early ‘60s when the civil rights movement reached Richmond, Virginia, our hometown.

Perhaps, because she had older siblings, Debby, unlike the rest of us, had a deeper understanding of the movement. While we were sheltered from the conversations about protests, she heard them and watched as Anna, a student at historically black, Virginia Union University left home with her sandwich board to picket the downtown department stores. Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, like all the major stores of the time, denied blacks access to the upstairs fine dining rooms. She watched as her dad and Bucky drove off to Washington DC in August 1963 to participate in the March on Washington. And she watched as her parents regularly drove neighbors to the picket sites. Debby wanted to do something like her sister and brother, but her mother thought she was too young and that it was too dangerous.

That’s when Debby came up with her plan. She understood a fundamental part of the protest strategy: denying revenue to businesses got the attention of the power brokers. The protestors didn’t just march. They stood in line with others to purchase a ticket for the movies even though they knew they would be denied; therefore, the lines were long—very long—to get into the theater. When protestors were there, other customers wouldn’t want to stand in those long lines; so, the theaters lost money.

Simple calls telling the theaters that someone chose not to spend their money with them because they were being protested against, was Debby’s way of having her voice heard too. This was how she supported the movement.

While, in hindsight, we all felt that we had played a role in the civil rights movement simply by getting an education, dressing a certain way, talking a certain way and therefore being primed to walk through the doors of opportunity when they opened. Little did we know, until very recently, that our friend Debby played an active role. You go, girl.

6 Replies to “Popcorn and Picketing”

  1. I love this story. Such a smart strategy and for a young girl to see! Hope you are warm and cozy on this New Year’s Day.

    Sent from my iPhone so pls be generous and overlook my sloppiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Nina, Happy New Year. I like this one, too. I do hope that the posts reveal something to the readers that they hadn’t considered before. It is so hard to understand what it really means to be black in America when this is not your experience. I hope a small window is opened through these posts. Be well.

      Like

  2. I love Debbie’s ingenious, devious, and totally safe (for a child) way of protesting segregation! I bow to her, and I would like to take her to a movie!

    Like

  3. WAY TO GO, DEBBIE! WE NEED TO CONTINUE WITH THIS STRATEGY AND WITHHOLD SPENDING OUR MONEY AND FREQUENTING ESTABLISHMENTS THAT DON’T SUPPORT OUR VALUES AND OUR PEOPLE.

    LOOKING FORWARD TO YOUR NEXT ENTRY. SO RICH, SO COOL!

    Like

  4. Not only are you opening a window, but your writing is promoting reflection. I look forward to your revelations, although not always comfortable from my experience and position. I will never experience the same understanding, but I have greater understanding about your experience. A huge thank you.

    Like

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