The Wichita sit-ins — then and now

The 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina hold an honored place in U.S. history. This campaign had an impact far beyond the concrete success it achieved in ending the policy of racial segregation in Woolworth’s department stores across the southern United States. It made national headlines that sparked similar sit-ins for racial desegregation in 54 cities in nine states throughout the South and catalyzed the next phase of the civil rights movement by inspiring the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The Greensboro sit-ins, though, were not the first ones. Earlier sit-ins (sometimes called sit-downs, recalling the labor movement’s strikes in the 1930s) were organized in Chicago (1942), St. Louis (1949) and Baltimore (1952). There was even a sit-in at a then-segregated public library in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1939. Many of these were part of larger campaigns, like the Chicago actions organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and fueled by studying Krishnalal Shridharani’s War Without Violence, a book outlining Gandhi’s method for nonviolent change published a few years earlier.

But not all sit-ins were part of strategic campaigns supported by large organizations. Two years before Greensboro, a handful of students in Wichita, Kansas — including Carol Parks-Haun and her cousin Ron Walters — decided to challenge the discriminatory policies of the downtown Dockum Drug Store where, like many other establishments throughout the city and across the South, African-Americans were prevented from sitting at its lunch counters.

Though Parks-Haun and Walters were active members of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization did not officially throw its weight behind this effort, since the NAACP typically shunned direct action strategies. Nonetheless, inspired by the Little Rock Nine and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the students were determined to take action.

As they cast around for a way forward, they heard about a sit-in by students at a California college “who ended segregation at a campus restaurant by occupying it with students reading newspapers all day long.” This was the spark they needed. They decided to see if they, too, could begin the process of dismantling Jim Crow in their own hometown. Years later they would speak of the inner challenges they faced, knowing that their action, however peaceful, might provoke a violent, racist backlash, and how they prepared themselves by undergoing challenging role-plays in a local church basement.

On July 19, 1958 — 54 years ago today — 10 students of color filtered into the drug store and were denied service. The Kansas Historical Society summarizes what turned out to be a three-week effort:

The students continued to fill the drug store. A few white patrons cursed at them and questioned them, but the students held strong. Only a couple of times were they threatened. [The police ran them off once.] Finally on August 11 the owner relented, saying, “Serve them — I’m losing too much money.” This victory for the students became a victory for equality in Kansas. With one downtown store no longer practicing segregation, other retail establishments slowly began to change their policies in Wichita and throughout Kansas. On August 19 NAACP Youth Council students in Oklahoma City, who had been in contact with Walters, began their own sit-in.

All of the Dockum stores in Kansas were eventually desegregated, while the successful sit-in at Oklahoma City’s Katz Drug Store helped spread this tactic. Despite these consequences, though, the story of the Dockum sit-ins went largely unnoticed:

When the Dockum Drug Store sit-in first happened in July 1958, few heard about it or recognized its importance. The sit-in was a student-led effort to end segregation. The two local daily newspapers published little about it, avoiding the negative association with the protest. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave moral support, but did not participate in the student effort.

By all accounts, this story was chiefly remembered for decades only by the participants, even though it set “a precedent that really began what would be a very significant strategy — a strategy that would change the way business was done in the United States,” according to Wichita historian and author Gretchen Eick. In the past decade or so, this historical turning point has been increasingly recognized, with the production of a documentary and video report, a story on NPR (“Kansas Sit-In Gets Its Due at Last”) and the creation of a 20-foot-long bronze sculpture in downtown Wichita with a lunch counter and patrons engaging in this successful protest.

In spite of this gradual recovery of the memory of this sit-in, its relative disappearance over decades raises many tantalizing questions about our collective memory. Why are some acts of nonviolent resistance remembered and why are others less so?

In this case there were concrete factors. There was the lack of the organizational support that typically not only helps to build actions but also to magnify them, to spread them, to saturate the social circles of others who care. There was the seemingly deliberate lack of media attention — the NPR story stresses that this campaign “failed to achieve national visibility in large part because the local newspaper didn’t want to scare away advertisers.” But there also seems to be a kind of capriciousness: Some things simply capture people’s attention, while other things don’t “take.” Was this seemingly arbitrary quality itself due to a certain lack of drama, because the opponents gave in quickly? Was there less at stake for the power-holders in Kansas than, say, Tennessee or Mississippi? Was the story less compelling because there was a quiet undertow to the whole thing?

While all of these factors may have been at play, there is also the mysterious growth of movements. The courageous action in Wichita helped nourish a coming wave of change. It helped lay the groundwork for this power. It helped explore possibilities and tap potentialities. As a subscriber to Bill Moyer’s Eight Stages of a Social Movement, I wonder whether the Wichita sit-ins may have been part of those first three foundational stages where, for most of the populace, the movement does not yet exist, but such prefigurative actions are testing the waters, creating openings, experimenting with new ways, even when they stand in consternating contrast to old ways (including, for example, those tried and true methods of the NAACP). Without those foundations, the Take Off Stage — the full rocketing power of Greensboro — is likely not possible.

The lesson? At whatever stage, action is important, even if it takes decades or longer to glimpse its magnificent and generative power.

In keeping with the theme of pioneering nonviolent resisters, I would like to send a shout out to nonviolent activist and author James W. Douglass, who celebrated his 75th birthday on July 16, and to Terry Messman, an activist and publisher of the homeless newspaper Street Spirit, whose birthday is today. Thirty years ago this month they were together with three dozen others preparing for the August 12, 1982 nonviolent blockade of the first Trident submarine, the USS Ohio, in the waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound, which remains a riveting example of powerful action. Happy birthday, Jim and Terry!

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