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Article Written by Rick Archer
March 2003

“Eenie Meenie Minie Mo, Take a Seat, We Gotta Go!”

These immortal words have landed SW Airlines in court. They are being sued by two irate passengers. You don’t believe me? Please read on.

Sometimes in dance class, I need a lady student to demonstrate a move. For lack of a better method, for the past twenty years or so I have used the classic picking rhyme “eenie meenie minie mo”.

I need a woman for a demonstration.  So I point to each individual woman as I go down the line and say, “eenie meenie minie mo, catch a lady by the toe. If she hollers make her say I’ll take lessons every day.”

Stupid? Of course.
Offensive? I hope not. No one has complained yet.
Effective?  Absolutely.

Someone always gets picked. Invariably they feel paranoid about the entire process. When asked, they figured I was going after them anyway and just used the stupid rhyme to cover my evil plans to harass them. The process is silly and soon over.

Did I say I have been doing it this way for twenty years?  Yes I did.  Is there any malice or hidden agenda?  I swear on a stack of Bibles I never gave any of this a second thought. I needed someone at random one day and the rhyme came to my head.

Did I know this rhyme had a racist background?  Absolutely not.

End of Story??

Not quite. You must read this article from the Chronicle -

Houston Chronicle
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Rhyme with a past leads to racial suit against Southwest Airlines
Kansas City, Kansas

A judge has set a trial date in a discrimination lawsuit filed against Southwest Airlines by two black passengers who were upset when a flight attendant recited a version of a rhyme with a racist history.

Grace Fuller, 48, and her sister, Louise Sawyer, 46, were returning from Las Vegas two years ago when flight attendant Jennifer Cundiff, trying to get passengers – who are not assigned seats – to sit down, said over the intercom, “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo; pick a seat, we gotta go.”

The sisters say the rhyme was directed at them and was a reference to its racist version that predates the Civil Rights era.

“It was like I was too dumb to find a seat,” Fuller said. Sawyer said fellow passengers snickered at the rhyme, which made her feel alienated.

The sisters are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

US District Judge Kathryn Vratil last week dismissed the claims of physical and emotional distress but set a trial for March 4.

“The court agrees with plaintiffs that because of its history, the phrase ‘eenie meenie minie mo could reasonably be viewed as objectively racist and offensive,” Vratil wrote.

In the modern version of the rhyme, the second line goes, “Catch a tiger by the toe.”

Airline attorney John Cowden said there was no intent to discriminate against any passenger.

Cundiff, who is white and was 22 at the time of the incident, said she had never heard the offensive version of the rhyme. She said she learned the Southwest Airline version from co-workers and used it as a funny way of getting fliers to sit down.

Plaintiffs attorney Scott Wissel said the sisters also want Dallas-based SW Airlines to stop using the rhyme and provide employee training to prevent such incidents.

After reading this article in astonishment, it took me several minutes before I remembered there was indeed a racist version of the rhyme. To be absolutely honest, that ‘version’ had not crossed my mind in over 40 years. I had completely forgotten about it.

If my rhyme has ever offended any reader who heard it in class, I am sorry but please understand nothing disrespectful is meant. It is the only picking rhyme I know besides ‘she loves me, she loves me not’. I suppose I could get a supply of flowers to keep on hand…

I wonder why the incident on the plane could not have been defused with a simple explanation from the bewildered attendant who had no idea what the problem was. After all, the announcement was made blindly over the intercom by a woman who had never heard the nasty version in her life. Why did these women take it so personally?? And was the affront so horrible it needed to be taken to court?? These women did not deserve to be disrespected, but based on what the article said it doesn’t seem the attendant meant to hurt them in the first place. I certainly hope there is more to the story than was reported.

Thinking about this story reminded me of an experience from my youth.

When I was 13, my mother worked in the Houston Medical Center. She made friends with a young black man named Marion Ford who was in dental school. When he graduated, he offered to do a crown on a chipped tooth that I needed. My mother didn’t have a lot of money and Dr. Ford offered to do the work at a discount since he was just getting his practice established. It was a kind offer that benefited all three of us.

One Saturday morning I got on the bus and went all the way to an area known as Kashmere Gardens. I was pretty terrified since I was the only white person on the bus.

During the hour ride I received many hostile stares. Race relations in Houston 1963 were very tense. Then as I walked to his office at 5109 Lockwood Street, I remember a man stopped me to ask what I was doing in his neighborhood. Yes, in case you were wondering I was very afraid. I said I was going to Dr. Ford’s office. He finally stepped aside to let me pass.

I spent nearly the whole day at Dr. Ford’s office. He worked on me whenever there was a break in his schedule. As Dr. Ford attended to his other patients, I grew tired of studying my eighth grade Latin book. That was the day I was supposed to memorize the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. “Pater Noster qui es in caelis, santificuter nomen tuum…”.

So I went outside his office to get some fresh air. For lack of anything better to do, I started throwing rocks against a tree in the front yard of his office. I threw towards the street with my back to his office. I wasn’t a very accurate thrower to begin with, but the street was fifty yards away. My errant tosses were no threat to persons or property.

To my surprise, a teenager came up to me from the sidewalk. He looked pretty angry. He told me he was going to fight me and that I better put up my fists. I started to put up my fists, but first I wanted to know what we fighting about.

This young man was not happy about my question. He insisted again that I fight him. I repeated that I would fight him if he would just explain what we were fighting about.
Finally with a sigh of exasperation he said he wanted to fight me because I had thrown a rock at him.

Now I understood. I patiently explained that I was merely throwing rocks against the tree. I pointed to a pile of rocks that had successfully struck the tree. He said that wasn’t good enough. He said that was my pathetic excuse because I was afraid to fight him. I said that was not true. I said I had never meant to throw a rock at him and apologized if I had hit him.

He said I had not hit him.

Well, how close did I come? Twenty feet. That’s when I realized this kid was looking for an excuse to beat me up. I have little doubt this teenage tough from the wrong side of the tracks had a lot more experience with fighting than a soft, over-protected white kid like me did. I just didn’t feel like getting beat up for something as stupid as this.

I said again I did not want to fight him. I promised that I meant no harm. I apologized that he got that impression. Then I offered him my hand. He reluctantly accepted my handshake and left. He seemed very disappointed.

I might add that I stayed in Dr. Ford’s office the remainder of the afternoon. With nothing else to do I studied the Lord’s Prayer which to this day I can still recite in totum.
Amazing the things that stick in your mind.

From my own experience and the SW Airlines incident I can only conclude that old wounds take a long long time to heal. I suppose we cannot expected the pain created by two hundred years of slavery and one hundred years of racist evils after that to be healed in one generation.

Be that as it may, it is my hope that anyone who attends my studio be they Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, straight, gay, from another planet or from Dallas will experience that they are very welcome here just as long as they treat everyone with the same kindness and respect that they themselves deserve.

All human beings need to see past our differences and realize we are one people. That said, hatred is a powerful emotion. Like radioactivity, once hatred is activated it seems to take eons to dissipate. Hatred is blinding, maddening, and all-consuming.

Today we have the power to eliminate our species from the Earth completely. Be it another Holocaust, a nuclear war, or a lethal plague, there is a huge chance someone’s hatred will spin so badly out of control it will mean the end of the human race. Without some sort of forgiveness and understanding, our world is in terrible trouble.

It is the responsibility of each individual to find a way to get along before it is too late.



Racist Nursery Rhyme?

Aired February 27, 2003 - 07:47 ET

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to shift our attention right now to a feature we do here with our good friend, Jeffrey Toobin. It's called "I am Jacked."

"Eenie, meenie, minie, moe," you've heard the nursery rhyme before. You might not know that the rhyme has roots in racism.

That's the basis right now of a discrimination lawsuit filed against Southwest Airlines by two women, two African-Americans.

Now, in his segment today, let's bring in Jeffrey.

Do you object? Why?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I object. OK, let's just set the stage of what happened in this case.

Southwest Airlines, a flight from Las Vegas to Kansas City. They get on the flight, the two women who become the plaintiffs, and they can't -- there are no seats available. And if you've ever flown on Southwest, you know that the flight attendants are sort of jokey (ph) sometimes, and they say, "eenie, meenie, minie, moe; take a seat, we gotta go." And they finally take a seat.

Months later, they file a lawsuit against Southwest, saying that "eenie, meenie, minie moe" is a racist nursery rhyme, and that they were offended and their rights were violated.

Now, what you probably don't know, and what I didn’t know, but what a lot of people do know is that it does have a racist history. The old phrase was, "eenie, meenie, minie moe, catch an 'N word' by the toe. If he hollers, make him pay $50 every day." That has been replaced by "catch a tiger by the toe" -- very familiar to everyone.

This is an insane lawsuit, as far as I can tell. You know, the phrase, "don't make a federal case out if it," seems to be invented for this lawsuit, but it is going to trial in April.

HEMMER: You say it degrades the currency of actual racial discrimination.

TOOBIN: Well, racial discrimination is a serious, real thing in this country, and to let a lawsuit like this go to trial, it seems to me to degrade, you know, a serious subject and make a joke out of it.

HEMMER: Well, here's what they're claiming -- put it on the screen right now: "As a direct result of Southwest's conduct, Ms. Fuller was subjected to ridicule and suffered severe humiliation, emotional distress, mental anguish, bodily harm." You buying this?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, first, there's no evidence of any of that. And you know, the poor flight attendant, there is no evidence at all that this flight attendant knew that there was this ugly history to this phrase. She was just trying to get people to get seated on the plane.

And look at the size of this, look at this brief. This is all about the nursery rhyme.

HEMMER: What do they want? Do they want money? Do they want an apology? What?

TOOBIN: They want money. You know, the legal rule. I've cited this before. When people say it's not about the money, it is about the money.

HEMMER: It is about money.


HEMMER: Quickly though, you say there is no impact on this woman. They are saying right now -- back to the screen again: "As a direct result of the severe emotional distress caused by Southwest's conduct, Ms. Fuller suffered an epileptic seizure on the evening of February 15, 2001."

TOOBIN: This a joke or what?

HEMMER: You laugh again.

TOOBIN: I mean, you know, this woman is an epileptic and that's very sad and I'm sorry about that. But you know, this nursery rhyme did not cause her to have an epileptic seizure. That is not what the legal system is all about.

HEMMER: Not everything is with the lawsuit, you're saying.

TOOBIN: You know? Don't make a federal case out of that. That's my rule.

HEMMER: Thank you, pal.

TOOBIN: All right, man.

HEMMER: You can object all of the time.

TOOBIN: All right.

HEMMER: Talk to you next hour about Robert Blake and what we saw and heard yesterday.

TOOBIN: I object to that, too.

HEMMER: Excellent. Thanks.


Jurors find no discrimination in flight attendant's rhyme use

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A Southwest Airline flight attendant's variation on a rhyme with a racist history did not discriminate against two black passengers, a federal jury decided.
The U.S. District Court jury of seven white men and one white woman deliberated less than an hour Wednesday before reaching its verdict.

Grace Fuller, 49, and her sister Louise Sawyer, 46, both of suburban Kansas City, filed the suit over comments flight attendant Jennifer Cundiff made after they boarded a Southwest flight to return from a Las Vegas vacation three years ago next month.

As the two were trying to find seats on the crowded plane, Cundiff said over the intercom, "Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go."

Sawyer and Fuller said the rhyme immediately struck them as a reference to an older, racist version in which the first line is followed by the words "catch a n——r by the toe." They testified at the two-day trial that they were embarrassed, humiliated and frustrated. Fuller said she suffered a small seizure on the flight home, which said was triggered by the remark. Later at home, she said she had a grand mal seizure and was bedridden for three days.

Cundiff, 25, of Argyle, Texas, testified that she had never heard the racist version and that she was only trying to inject humor to make the flight more enjoyable and memorable. She wanted passengers to take their seats so the plane could leave.

Cundiff, who had been a flight attendant for eight months at the time, said she had used the rhyme before on other flights. She said that it was not until she showed her mother the letters complaining about what she said that she learned about the racist version of the rhyme.

Fuller said after the verdict that there was enough evidence for jurors to have found she and her sister had been discriminated against.

"If we had jurors of our peers then we would have won the case today, and we should have won the case today, with all the evidence shown," she said.

"It's a shame that the jury pool we had to draw from did not have one black and not one minority," she said. "Something has to be done to make sure there is justice in America for blacks."

Fuller and her sister testified that they first wrote to Southwest complaining that they felt the rhyme was racially offensive, asking that flight attendants stop using it. They said they decided to sue because they felt the airline did not take their complaints seriously.

The lawsuit accused Southwest of violating a 1981 civil rights law that prevents businesses from discriminating against minority customers by treating them differently from white customers for the same service.

Scott A. Wissel, appointed to represent the women after they filed a handwritten complaint, declined comment about the verdict. In his closing argument he said Cundiff's use of the rhyme was tantamount to a racial slur.

John W. Cowden, who represented Southwest Airlines, said he and his client were pleased with the verdict.

"All along, Southwest Airlines has contended that it did not intentionally discriminate against the two ladies," he said. "We are pleased the jury agreed and vindicated Southwest and its flight attendant, Jennifer Cundiff."

In his closing argument, Cowden characterized Cundiff's remarks as an innocent attempt at humor.

"At best, this is an argument that something is not politically correct," Cowden told jurors. "At worst, it is nothing. Certainly, this does not support a violation of a federal statute, because these words were spoken."

Cundiff said she was relieved and thought the verdict was fair and just. She maintained that the rhyme had been directed at several passengers, not just Sawyer and Fuller.

"When I first heard they complained about what I said, I didn't know what they were talking about," she said.

While Cundiff said she probably would never use the rhyme again, "I will not tell anyone not to say it."


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