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The Welcome Table

By Lee Martin



The goal of nonviolent direct action, according to King, is to lovingly prick the conscience and to win the friendship of the opponent, beginning by inducing shame but ending with brotherly reconciliation. The stresses of black-white relations, under conditions of segregation and in the face of protests, raise difficult challenges also for decent whites, not least about their own strengths of character and identity. In this disturbing story (1996) by novelist, short story writer and professor of creative writing at Ohio State University, Lee Martin (b. 1955), we see what happens to both father and son of a New Hampshire family that has relocated to Nashville, Tennessee during the time of the lunch counter sit-ins (1960). Richard, the father, changing his identity to avoid recognition for previous disgrace, takes the name of Thibodeaux (“bold among people” or “bold people”), and he with the help of his son Edward, the story’s narrator, help prepare the black students at Fisk University for the insults and torments they are sure to face during the stormy days ahead. Meanwhile, Edward’s mother produces eggshell miniature art, in the hope of beautifying the chaotic world around her. All their efforts are for naught, as they find that they cannot handle the racial trouble that erupts.

Collecting as many details from the story as you can, describe all the characters in the story, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. How do you explain Edward’s shameful conduct at the sit-in? Is the problem a lack of courage, doubts about his own identity, or latent racial prejudice? Are the sins of the father visited on the son? What does Edward finally learn about his father? About himself? What light does this story shed on black-white relations, and especially on the causes of the behavior of whites? What might this story imply about the usefulness of shame as a means to effecting racial reconciliation? What is the meaning of the title, “The Welcome Table”?

It was 1960, a touch-and-go time in Nashville. An activist named James Lawson1 was organizing students from the black colleges, and because my father sold greeting cards to black-owned variety stores, he had gotten word of the lunch counter sit-ins that were about to get underway. He had decided to hook up with the integration movement because he couldn’t resist the drama of it. “This is history,” he said to me one night. “The world is going to change, Ed, and someday you’ll be able to say you were part of it.”

He had volunteered my services as well because he knew I was at an age when it would be difficult for me to stand up for right, and he wanted me to get a head start on being a man of conscience and principle.

Read the story online.

1 During the fall of 1959, James Lawson (b. 1928), a divinity student at Vanderbilt University, taught students how to organize sit-ins and use the tactics of nonviolent direct action. Later, he was a leader in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Return to text.

Return to The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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