The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Hoy is director emeritus of the Center for Great Plains Studies and professor emeritus at Emporia State University. His latest book, “My Flint Hills,” has just been released.
Back in the 19th century, Bleeding Kansas and John Brown helped to focus the nation’s attention on the injustice of slavery and the hypocrisy of calling the United States the land of the free. Nearly a century later, Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, which marked the beginning of the long struggle to end segregation in our nation’s schools, was in fact an early victory in the effort to end segregation in all areas of American life.
A few years after Brown v. Board, Kansas made another significant — but little-known — contribution to the civil rights movement. The Wichita Sit-In did not get national attention, nor even much attention in Wichita. The Eagle and Beacon largely ignored it, and while the Black newspaper, the Enlightener, followed it, that paper published only one photograph of the sit-in.
Today, however, the sit-in is becoming better known. I don’t recall how I first heard of it several years ago, but in researching this article I found that oral histories videotaped by the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum for a 2009 KPTS documentary are now in the Library of Congress, that it has been featured on NPR and C-SPAN, among other news outlets, and that this year has been on the Today Show and in the Washington Post.
Kansas, unlike the South, was never officially segregated. In 1874, the state passed a law that gave Black people the same rights as white Americans. In reality, however, there was plenty of discrimination in Kansas and more than one town with a sign that warned Blacks “do not let the sun set on you here.”
I was not all that enlightened in my teenage years, and in fact rather ignorant of racial politics. There were no Black people in Cassoday, my hometown, and only a few Mexican families, most of whom lived in the Santa Fe section houses and worked maintaining the railroad tracks. I don’t recall any of my fellow students (never more than three dozen in the high school during my four years there) ever showing any animus toward or making any racist slurs about the one Hispanic girl in the school. Virginia Solis was a couple of years older than I, friendly with everyone, a popular cheerleader at Cassoday Rural High.
Nor, to my limited knowledge, was there discrimination in any of the cafes in El Dorado, the county seat of Butler County. In Wichita, however, it was a different story.
In 1958, a 19-year-old girl named Carol Parks and her 20-year-old cousin, Ronald Walters, both members of the Youth Council of the Wichita NAACP, organized a sit-in at the downtown Dockum Rexall Drugstore, a local chain with eight other locations in town. They had notified the national NAACP of their intentions, but officials there were not encouraging; they thought legal action was the best way to accomplish desegregation.
Parks and Walters, however, were not deterred. They arranged for young Black people to come in and occupy the stools at the lunch counter and order a glass of Coke, which, of course, they did not receive. They might have been denied service, but they quietly sat there, not complaining when their orders were not taken. They operated in shifts, occasionally switching out with other members of the Youth Council.
This they did every Thursday evening (the time most stores stayed open late in that era) and every Saturday. Occasionally, white customers questioned or cursed them, but only a couple of times did they feel threatened, most seriously by a youthful motorcycle gang. The police refused to intervene, but Walters made a phone call to some friends, and when a few carloads of Black youths pulled up outside, the motorcyclists left loudly and grudgingly but without precipitating any violence.
At the end of three weeks, the owner of Dockums walked into the store, looked around, and told the soda jerk: “Serve them. I’m losing too much money.” Soon afterwards, all Rexall stores in Kansas also desegregated. The young Black students in Wichita, on their own and without the sanction of the national NAACP, had proved that economic pressure worked as effectively as lawsuits — and at a lot less expense.
Two years later, this time with the approval of the NAACP, sit-ins were organized at Woolworth stores in Greensboro, North Carolina, which drew national attention and, after six months, resulted in Woolworth desegregating all its stores in the South.
But it was Wichita that undertook the movement that later went nationwide.
William Allen White once said something to the effect that if it’s going to happen in the United States, it will happen first in Kansas. The Wichita Sit-In was one more proof of White’s observation.
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