His name was Willie. Willie was African-American, a tall kid a little younger than me and as nice a friend as I have ever known. We were good friends in college and I never thought of him as being any other race than mine. Maybe we all have had friends like that–we just forgot they looked different.
It was summer in 1964 and I had returned to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to get ready for the fall semester. I bumped into Willie who proudly announced he had just turned 21. Well, that called for a celebration and I offered to buy him an adult beverage at a nice place near the campus. He accepted and off we went. We were both shocked when the bartender refused to serve Willie. He apologized and said it wasn’t his choice, but that of his management. I could respect that without agreeing that it was right, but Willie took offense.
We left the place and walked back to the campus. Willie said he wanted to take the restaurant and bar to court because they had violated the law against racial discrimination. Like many white people who couldn’t see the black perspective, I urged him to be patient. In my opinion things would get better over time.
Willie was true to his word and he and some of his friends sued the restaurant. As I recall, they won. I wasn’t asked to testify. Willie was in the right and I am glad he acted as he did. At the time I didn’t mind not to be asked to be part of his lawsuit, but now I wish I had the chance. You see, Willie was my friend, but when it came time to stand with him, I let him down, and I regret that.
This is Black History Month. Many of us who happen to be white have never understood and maybe never will understand what it is like to be discriminated against simply because your skin is the wrong color or you have a name that isn’t Anglo Saxon enough.
I let Willie down. I’m sorry for that and always will be, and I hope I never let another injustice pass unanswered like I did that time. It’s not what I am or who I am.
WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.