Saturday, December 06, 2008
6226: Soul Food With A Side Of Civil Rights.
From The New York Times…
Remembering a Soul Food Legend Who Nurtured Civil Rights Leaders
By Robbie Brown
ATLANTA — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. loved the vegetable soup. Representative John Lewis always ordered the peas. And Andrew Young, as mayor of Atlanta, would not tolerate anyone else’s fried chicken.
But the aging lions of the civil rights movement who hobbled into the funeral on Friday of James V. Paschal, the co-founder of a legendary soul food cafe in Atlanta, only briefly mentioned the cooking. Instead, they spoke of the entrepreneur, and the role he played by providing nourishment and a sense of place to a fledgling movement that changed the nation.
Mr. Paschal, with his older brother Robert, orchestrated the meteoric rise of Paschal’s Restaurant from a red-brick chicken shack into a defining symbol of food and politics in black Atlanta. He was 88 when he died Nov. 28 of complications from heart surgery.
“Lord, I tell you, it’s hard to even imagine black politics in Georgia without the Paschal brothers,” said Tyrone Brooks, a state representative from Warrenton. “You can’t hardly find one elected official from the ’60s to today who hasn’t been touched by that restaurant and that family.”
For 61 years, Mr. Paschal quietly shepherded a generation of black politicians from protest to power. Drawn by the flaky, ungreasy chicken and fast-melting peach cobbler, they planned marches in Selma and Birmingham over lunches and breakfast. They mourned Dr. King’s death in the main dining room. And in 1984 and 1988, they began the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the presidency from a connecting hotel owned by Paschal’s.
“I used to say that all the decisions in Atlanta were made between 6:30 and 8 in the morning, and they were made at Paschal’s,” Mr. Young said. “Any politician in Atlanta who wanted to get elected needed the black vote, and the best place to get it was Paschal’s.”
Over the years, Paschal’s expanded and evolved, to the perpetual concern of loyalists. The speakeasy atmosphere yielded to an upscale, white-linen setting. Its signature elbow-to-elbow seating was replaced with spacious but less conversation-friendly tables. And in 2002, the restaurant changed locations, abandoning the one at 530 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which became part of Clark Atlanta University, for a vaulted building several blocks away. (It also has two outposts at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for travelers needing a soul food fix.)
“It used to be the kind of place where everybody talked,” said Curtis Paschal, the son of Mr. Paschal and an executive at the company that owns the restaurant. “A politician could sit and have a coffee with a local artist. A Ph.D. in physics could sit down with the local numbers guy and discuss theoretical physics.”
Mr. Lewis ate his first meal in Atlanta at Paschal’s, in 1963, but feels less attachment to the new location. “The new place just doesn’t have the same feeling,” he said. “It’s much more sophisticated and contemporary.”
On a recent afternoon, Charles Releford Jr., a chief of staff in the Fulton County government, returned to Paschal’s for the food he has been having for the last 40 years: fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. “When you come here, you always see everyone you know,” Mr. Releford said. “It’s not just people from Atlanta either. When friends from New York come to town, they always just say, ‘I’ll meet you at Paschal’s.’ ”
The restaurant’s clientele once included members of the King family, Julian Bond, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and Maynard Jackson. An adjacent jazz club, La Carrousel, also run by the Paschals, drew performances by Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Lena Horne, Cannonball Adderley and Joe Williams.
Even in the 1950s, the restaurant seated white and black patrons together, a daring violation of segregation laws in Atlanta. At La Carrousel, Connie Curry, the first white woman on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, enjoyed her first dance with a black man.
Mr. Paschal’s funeral service, at Morehouse University’s chapel, attracted more than 500 people. Overlooking a coffin draped in red roses and lined with poinsettias, a parade of civil rights veterans paid effusive tributes to the restaurant.
To shouts of “Amen” and “Oh, yes,” they told how Mr. Paschal, the son of a sharecropper, became a millionaire without forgetting his roots or his community. They described his patience, the little bow of his head that he gave every customer as he went table to table asking about the service.
“He provided the place where we could meet, strategize and plan to go to jail,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, the former president of the Concerned Black Clergy.
The restaurant was also a place to calm frayed nerves after arrests, death threats and beatings. “You’d leave the front lines of the movement, in South Georgia or Alabama,” Mr. Lewis said, “and when you made it to Paschal’s you were safe.”
But Mr. Paschal was also a businessman, interested in profit as well as social progress.
“He’d always say, ‘I don’t just want y’all to meet in here,’” Mr. McDonald recalled. “‘I want y’all to eat in here, too.’”