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In Ga. eatery, diners equal but separate

Black patrons continue to sit at tables in back

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- Marvin Mitchell and Henry Lee Smith forged a bond long before the civil-rights era came to Georgia's Appalachian foothills. Smith taught Mitchell how to drive a car, in the early 1950s. Mitchell's parents gave Smith a job, and fed him at the family table.

But six mornings a week, the two old friends enter the 4 Way Lunch counter -- through different doors -- at breakfast time. Mitchell, who is white, goes to the main dining room up front. Smith, who is black, goes through a side entrance, and then sits in a cramped back room where black patrons were forced to dine during the Jim Crow era.

These days, blacks are welcome to sit wherever they want at 4 Way Lunch. But Smith, like many older blacks here, shuns the front.

So he and Mitchell are left to carry on a half-century of ribbing and reminiscing through a narrow kitchen doorway. They shout daily hellos over the country music. Stories are shuttled back and forth by an obliging staff.

Most of the legal battles to dismantle segregation were won more than 40 years ago. But in pockets of the Deep South, such as 4 Way Lunch, about 40 miles north of Atlanta, change came slowly and subtly, unfolding over decades of freshened coffee cups and $1.25 breakfast specials.

Even today, the movement's victories have not broken some of the habits that keep people apart.

The older blacks at the 4 Way consider themselves admirers of the civil-rights movement, but most still prefer eating in the former Jim Crow section.

They don't go up front, they say, because they simply feel more comfortable in the back. They mention that blacks have been sitting on those three stools as long as anyone can remember, trading gossip and cutting up.

''I just like it back here," said Smith, a 77-year-old handyman. ''You see what fun we have."

From their spot near the six-burner stove, the regulars can watch a younger generation of blacks walk in the front door, and be served without hassles. But, these days, treatment is just as good in the back.

On both sides of the restaurant, the 4 Way's chatty waitresses take orders for hog jowl, grits, and homemade gravy. They ask after mutual acquaintances. They take care of their favorites.

Lillian Starnes is a 38-year veteran of the 4 Way. She and her sister took ownership of the diner about two years ago, when the proprietor died.

She seems bemused by the black regulars and their preferences. They will often wait for one of the three stools in back even when seats are available in the main room.

''We'll say, 'You want to come up front?' And they'll say, 'No, I want to wait back here,' " said Starnes, who is 54. ''I just feel that they feel comfortable eating back there. . . . I know them all, and I don't see no color."

The 4 Way is the kind of informal diner that was popular around the South before the spread of fast-food chains.

And it was the kind that was often targeted by black activists who staged sit-ins to force integration of such institutions.

Inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, black students in the early 1960s ended segregation in restaurants in dozens of communities across the South. Images of well-dressed protesters calmly awaiting service became enduring symbols of nonviolent protest.

Cartersville, like many Southern communities after Reconstruction, was strictly segregated by race. Until the 1960s, blacks and whites were separated at schools, restaurants, and jobs.

The Ku Klux Klan was active, and the city was home to two of the region's most ardent proponents of lynching -- Rebecca Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate, and Charles Henry Smith, a newspaper columnist.

Racial violence was transforming Cartersville's business climate when a white man, named Fred Garrison, opened the 4 Way in 1931, on the site of a former saloon. The year before, a black man accused of killing the police chief had been lynched by a white mob while he was awaiting trial.

Robert Benham, a Cartersville native and justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, has written that in the ensuing years, the climate drove most black-owned businesses out of downtown.

In some instances, however, there was deep fellowship between the two races -- a fact that blacks and whites now note with pride. Mitchell said his parents owned a meat market that served blacks and whites alike. His father hired Henry Lee Smith as a jack-of-all-trades in 1952, and later trained him as a butcher.

''My daddy and mamma loved him," said Mitchell, 68, a part-time sheriff's deputy and former city councilor. ''My daddy would have killed a man over him if he had to."

A tow-truck driver, Sanford Lawrence, 52, grew up picking cotton on a farm a few miles from Cartersville. When the family came to town for a rare restaurant meal, they often went to the 4 Way.

''Back here was for the blacks to eat," he said from the backroom stools, which he still prefers. ''We just knew our place -- that you didn't go to the front of the restaurant. You waited for someone to speak to you. You didn't speak [first]."

In 1964, a small group of local black men decided to bring the integration fight to their hometown. They focused their efforts on Ernie's Restaurant, which was owned by Ernest Garrison, son of the 4 Way's owner.

The tide of history eventually burst through the doors of the 4 Way as well. But to hear Starnes tell it, it was met with a shrug.

Starnes said that a group of civil-rights activists from Atlanta walked into the restaurant sometime in the mid-1960s and demanded to be served up front.

Fred Garrison said OK, Starnes said. ''But [the black customers] continued to go to the back."

Lawrence called a visitor's attention to a man sitting at the front counter.

He described the man as one of the people whom he called ''troublemakers," when the public schools were integrating between 1965 and 1969.

''He was one of my classmates," Lawrence said. ''He was one of the ones when we first integrated the schools who gave me and the blacks so many problems."

Lawrence said that he was not worried about people like that anymore.

Society has changed, he said, and those kinds of people should watch their mouths.

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