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Twinkies and Civil Rights

August 30, 2013

by Harold Ticktin

map_of_hollandale_msI have never eaten a Twinkie, but I did use one as a valuable weapon for civil rights. It was in Mississippi, the summer of 1965, and I was a volunteer with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC). During a blistering August, I visited a town called Hallandale, which had a thriving Head Start program and a headache with a local café, the Top Hat, which was refusing to serve Blacks except for take-out. There was an existing preliminary injunction against Top Hat in force, but it was awaiting an appeal in federal court in Oxford, Mississippi.

I had a pleasant visit because of the Head Start program, which carried on under a corrugated iron roof, hard by the cotton fields, which were periodically sprayed, along with the school, with pesticides, from the air. The kids and their mostly female advocates were an inspiration. After gathering information about Top Hat, I returned to Jackson, only to find the office frantic because we had not supplied evidence that Top Hat was engaged in interstate commerce. As with many volunteer outfits in a bind, the scene was hectic, with all kinds of unhelpful suggestions about what to do. With Grishamesque aplomb I offered a simple suggestion, called Hallandale and left instructions.

That Saturday, in the soldierly courtroom of Federal Judge Claude Taylor, Top Hat’s attorney went first, offering all the expected arguments: a mom-and-pop store, open to nigras, certainly, and then the final blast: SInce it had not been shown that Top Hat was involved in interstate commerce, the injunction should be lifted.

Following my plan, my co-counsel rose and called to the witness stand an absolutely charming, pigtailed 15-year-old black girl from Hallandale, and the following took place:

Q: Did you go shopping at the Top Hat Cafe yesterday?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Did you bring the fruits of that trip with you?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Please indicate what you purchased.

First came a Hershey bar from Pennsylvania, then a roll of Lifesavers from Massachusetts, followed by the coup d’ alimentaire, a Hostess Twinkie from Texas — the latter with an engaging smile from the purchaser.

All three were properly marked as exhibits and the hearing progressed. The judge, already put off by the intrusion of many legal maneuvers hitherto unknown to Mississippi, upheld the injunction “by the merest of margins.” I like to think that the Twinkies were indeed a mere margin, but a good one.

Nonagenerian Harold Ticktin is a retired attorney in Shaker Heights, OH, long involved in the civil rights and labor movements, a self-taught Yiddishist, and a regular contributor to Jewish Currents.