It is gone now, the Phoenix lot flat and lifeless, leveled by a weapon of mass destruction, the human being. The El Rey Cafe once stood here, a popular little Mexican-American eatery at 922 South Central. Railroad tracks and an underpass on the north separate this down-trodden area of cheap homes, vacant buildings, chain-link fences and graffiti from the big-bank highrises of downtown a half-mile away.
But the El Rey had its big moment in the city’s history. It was the site of Arizona’s first sit-in as the civil rights movement swept into Arizona during the summer of 1963. The sit-in flashed to mind as I began to more fully absorb the tragic shootings 11 days ago of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others in Tucson, our sister-city only a two-hour drive south.
I began to wonder what would happen if the El Rey sit-in, a tactic of nonviolence, occurred today, in this quite-different age of hate, unbridled anger, bigotry and violence. What I envisioned was blood in the streets.
Something, it seemed to me, had gone very wrong in Arizona over those ensuing 47 years after El Rey. But what?
Description of the El Rey incident was taken from articles published in the state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, September 1-6, 1963.
That Saturday morning on the last day of August, 1963, had started smoothly enough. The co-owner of the El Rey, Connie Peralta, had turned away a few blacks in latter weeks but thought nothing special of it. The restaurant had been in operation for 18 years. It was her business. She would run it the way she wanted.
Perhaps Mrs. Peralta was unaware of outside events. Elsewhere, the nation was changing. The civil rights movement was rolling along, and JFK, the courts and the federal government were supporting it. The South particularly was in an uproar. Less than a year before James Meredith broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi and now Gov. George Wallace of Alabama was threatening to confront federal troops on the capitol steps at Montgomery over racial integration in his state.
By late morning, though, Peralta found her eight booths and six tables taken over by young people of the National Association for the Advancement of Black People’s Youth Council of Phoenix. About 20 blacks and six whites. They refused to move. Eight picketed outside. They held signs: “Equal Rights Now!” and “El Rey Refuse [sic] to Serve Negroes.” A demonstrator, at a reporter’s urging, asked for service. The waitress refused. Still, Peralta tried to serve her non-black customers, feeding them in a back room and in the kitchen.
The police came. One told Peralta, “We can’t make them get out.” A black sergeant said, “This just isn’t a matter for the police but for the courts.”
Peralta was furious. “You have no right to tell me how to run my business,” she said. Rev. Walter H. Dugan, a white and an NAACP board member, shot back, “[You’re] putting property rights above personal rights.”
Peralta said if she served blacks, she’d lose her white business. And they, she said meaning the blacks, “don’t like Mexican food.”
Lincoln Ragsdale, vice president of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP, said simply, “We are going to be served.” And, he added, “It’s has been settled all over the country that sit-ins are legal. Anyone has a right to use a facility that is open to the public.”
“They’re never going to eat here, now or ever,” Peralta was quoted as saying, “and that’s final.”
The peaceful demonstration lasted eight and a half hours, until 7:30 p.m. By that time Peralta turned off the lights and the cooling in the dining room where the blacks sat.
The conservative Republic, in an editorial under the headline, “Need for Moderation,” likened the sit-in to “a teapot tempest” and deprecatingly called it “L’affaire El Rey.” The anonymous author chuckled at the irony: For once, it was “white people served in the kitchen.” The Republic seemed bewildered why blacks would bring an issue against another minority, the Mexicans, and not the white community. Still almost every story ran prominently on the paper’s front page.
The Phoenix Human Rights Commission intervened, a moratorium was called and, on September 5, a huge banner headline across the Republic’s front page said, “Mrs. Peralta Gives In.”
The El Rey matter had been settled peacefully, no reports of injury other than to Mrs. Peralta’s feelings. Settled too without what the Republic seemed to fear most, the use of “bicycle chains” in the hands of young blacks and Mexicans. There was not in all of these stories one mention of guns or other weapons.
Not long afterward, black leaders met with officials of Valley National Bank, the state’s largest financial institution, and secured promises of integration of blacks into its work force. Segregation, at least in a small way, was coming to an end in Arizona without bloodshed.
About 17 years after the El Rey, sometime around 1980, not long after arriving in Arizona from Oklahoma, I took a trip up to the old mining town of Jerome. It was a sunny afternoon and offered a wonderful and serene view of the Verde Valley from up there on the side of Mingus Mountain. I was headed to a restaurant on the main drag when I discovered some cowboys heading the same direction. These cowboys were not riding horses. They were saddled on motorcycles. And as they dismounted and swaggered toward the restaurant in black outfits, I saw strapped to every waist a holstered pistol. I realized then for the first time what a different culture I had come to, this place called Arizona.
It was my indoctrination into a land where the Wild West mentality ran strong. A land where extreme independence rests in the hearts of many, a land where you can commit an act so outrageous that there is always a large segment of the populace that will stand up for your right to do so. A land where “government” is a nasty word.
I believe this Wild West mentality mushroomed in the ’70s with the immigration, not of Hispanics, but of hordes of dreamy-eyed white Sundance Kids who were attracted to Arizona by the myths of western movies, TV shows and and other media.
I believe too that this cowboy mentality combined with loose gun laws, prolifertion of high-powered automatic weapons, the state’s lack of interest in treating mental illness along with tensions created by the right-wing vitriol and violence led the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, to feel in his deranged mind a sense of comfort in what he set out to do. That’s not to exclude of course the internet where at any given moment you can find support for any idea imaginable.
In any case, we in Arizona, and all arid lands of the West, are sadly changed from the more temperate days of the El Rey Cafe. Our calling card is no longer a sit-in. It is a bullet.