Memorial service to honor Wichita civil rights pioneer

To the world, Ronald W. Walters was Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign manager, a political scholar and strategist, news commentator, author and activist.

To Wichita, he will forever be the Wichita University freshman who in the summer of 1958 made history by leading the local NAACP youth chapter in a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs store.

Dr. Walters, a Wichita native, professor of government and political science at the University of Maryland, and director of the African American Leadership Institute at UCLA, died Friday in Bethesda, Md., from lung cancer. He was 72.

A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Kansas African American Museum, 601 N. Water.

Like many Kansas stores at the time, Dockum Drugs, on the southeast corner of Broadway and Douglas, would not allow black people to sit at its lunch counter.

The sit-in that Dr. Walters organized sparked a similar demonstration in Oklahoma City in 1959 and several others before the well-known Greensboro, N.C., sit-in took place in 1960.

In 2006, the national NAACP recognized Wichita's sit-in as the first youth-led lunch counter sit-in.

"It is hard to imagine where we would be as a country had it not been for the innovation from Ron Walters and the youth group of 1958," said Kevin Myles, president of the Kansas State Conference of NAACP Branches and president of the Wichita Branch NAACP. "He created the tool responsible for bringing about equal accommodations. It is hard to overstate the significance of that. He was a true civil rights pioneer and gave the movement one of its most effective tools."

Dr. Walters was born July 20, 1938, in Wichita. His father was a musician and had served in the military; his mother was a civil rights investigator for the state.

In 2002, Friends University professor Gretchen Eick, author of "Dissent in Wichita," a book on the civil rights movement in the Midwest, invited Dr. Walters to Wichita to discuss the sit-in at a conference about the 1960s.

"He broke down and got emotional," Eick recalled Sunday. "He said he had spent all his life doing and achieving and consulting with high-level people in different parts of the world, but that his hometown had never invited him back to speak. He said, 'I can't tell you what it means that somebody is recognizing something good came out of black Wichita and something good came out of the Walters family.' He's somebody we should all be proud of."

In 2008, the sit-in's 50th anniversary, city officials offered nine people, including Dr. Walters, who had taken part in the sit-in, keys to the city and an apology.

Dr. Walters said of the sit-in and the recognition that followed a half-century later: "The legacy is not just for black children but for all children. The legacy needs to be taught in schools and preached in the pulpits. The legacy is beyond this moment."

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Walters was instrumental in helping develop the framework for the Congressional Black Caucus, which formed in 1969.

He was a public affairs commentator on national news shows and authored seven books and more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles. He had also been a professor and chair of the political science department at Howard University, assistant professor and chair of Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, and assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.

In 2000, he was awarded the Ida B. Wells-W.E.B. DuBois Award for Distinguished Scholarship from the National Council for Black Studies.

Myles said Dr. Walters served as a mentor to many Wichitans, including him.

In 2004, the local NAACP chapter created the Ron Walters Civil Rights Apprentice Program, which promotes leadership with local black youths and annually presents an award named for Dr. Walters to a high-achieving youth.

"When I called to tell him that we'd name it after him, he was so excited he dropped the phone and called his wife to tell her, 'You've got to hear this,&'" Myles said Sunday.

Eick said the Dockum Drugs sit-in went against the wishes of the national NAACP, which at the time preferred fighting for civil rights through the courts.

"What he did on so many levels is important for the city of Wichita," Eick said. As a young man, he had the courage to take a leadership role among high school and college students and help them think about how to challenge the humiliation they were subject to. These restaurants wouldn't let them sit down or eat or drink. They had to take everything outside."

Dr. Walters and his cousin, Carol Parks, organized the sit-in. Day after day, they sat at the drugstore's lunch counter, where they were refused service.

After three weeks, Dockum's owners agreed to desegregate that lunch counter, the counters at its eight other Wichita locations and Rexall Drug counters across Kansas.

The sit-in is commemorated by a bronze lunch counter sculpture in the Chester I. Lewis Reflection Park, 205 E. Douglas in downtown Wichita.