CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — Marvin Mitchell and Henry Lee Smith forged a brotherly bond long before the civil rights era came to Georgia's Appalachian foothills. Smith taught Mitchell how to drive a car in the early 1950s. Mitchell's parents gave Smith a job and fed him at the family table.
But six mornings a week, the two old friends enter the 4 Way Lunch counter through different doors at breakfast time. Mitchell, who is white, goes to the main dining room up front. Smith, who is black, goes through a side entrance and sits in a cramped backroom where blacks were once forced to eat during the Jim Crow era.
These days, blacks are welcome to sit wherever they want at 4 Way Lunch. But Smith, like many older African Americans here, still shuns the front section.
So he and Mitchell are left to carry on half a century of ribbing and reminiscing through the narrow kitchen doorway. They shout their daily hellos over the country music. Stories are shuttled back and forth by an obliging wait staff.
"Pete," Mitchell says to co-owner Lillian "Pete" Starnes, "ask Henry what year he went to work for my daddy."
Starnes confers with Smith and yells, " '52."
"Pete," Mitchell says, "Go tell Henry I'm going to tell the story about the time I got him drunk."
Again she goes to Smith, who gives a sheepish look through the door. Starnes returns to report that Smith is so embarrassed that "he'd like to die."
"That was mean, Marvin," she kids.
This peculiar ritual has been going on for decades, and it was in evidence the week of Coretta Scott King's Feb. 7 funeral, which brought four presidents together to praise the civil rights movement.
Most of the legal battles to dismantle segregation were won more than 40 years ago. But in pockets of the Deep South -- in a place like 4 Way Lunch, about 40 miles north of Atlanta -- change came slowly and subtly, unfolding over decades of freshened-up coffees and $1.25 breakfast specials. Even today, the movement's victories have not broken some of the old habits that keep people apart.
The older blacks at the 4 Way consider themselves admirers of the civil rights movement, but most still prefer eating in the former Jim Crow section.
They don't go up front, they say, because they simply feel more comfortable in the back. They mention that blacks have been sitting on those three stools as long as anyone can remember, trading gossip and cutting up.
"I just like it back here," says Smith, a 77-year-old handyman. "You see what fun we have."
"It didn't ever bother me eating back here," says Mack Sanders, 66. "When [integration] passed I still didn't go up there. I still came back here. It's just something you get used to."
From their spot near the six-burner stove, the old regulars can watch a younger generation of African Americans walk in the front door and get served with no hassles. But these days, treatment is just as good in the back.
On both sides of the restaurant, the 4 Way's chatty waitresses take custom orders for hog jowl, grits and homemade gravy. They ask after mutual acquaintances. They take care of their favorites: On a recent weekday, Smith was eating biscuits and salmon patties that a white employee, Rachel Kendricks, had brought from home.
Starnes is a 38-year veteran of the 4 Way. She and her sister took ownership of the diner about two years ago, when the proprietor died.
Today, she seems sweetly bemused by the black regulars and their stubborn preferences. They will often wait for one of the three stools in back even though seats are available in the main room.
"We'll say, 'You want to come up front?' And they'll say, 'No, I want to wait back here,' " said Starnes, 54. "I just feel that they feel comfortable eating back there.... I know them all, and I don't see no color."
For 75 years, 4 Way Lunch has been serving up simple meals in the heart of downtown Cartersville, a farming and manufacturing hub of about 17,400 people with a rich Southern history. The Union destroyed much of the town during the Civil War, but its location on a major railroad line ensured a muscular postwar comeback. Today, the city core is dominated by handsome turn-of-the-century brick buildings, including a gold-domed courthouse that prominently displays a memorial to Confederate troops.
Locals are particularly proud of the 4 Way for having survived the urban and suburban influences that have transformed Cartersville as metro Atlanta has sprawled ever closer. On Main Street, an herb store advertises fresh kava root. A boutique called Psycho Sisters trades in hip, punk women's fashions. Chain restaurants like Applebee's have given the outskirts of town a generic look.
The 4 Way, in a squat, fire-engine-red building, announces its name in blocky black letters painted onto signs sponsored by Coca Cola Co. In a front room 40 feet wide, 11 black stools are sidled up to a broad red countertop.