Wichita residents celebrate civil rights, honor the past

The rise of the civil rights movement was celebrated Sunday night in a celebration that included music, dance and speeches at Century II Concert Hall.

It was a night to celebrate.

“The civil rights movement birthed not only great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Sherdeill Breathett, economic development specialist for Sedgwick County. “The civil rights movement was successful, in part because it garnered the energy of youth.”

Sunday night’s celebration was sponsored by the Kansas African American Museum.

Speakers included Mayor Carl Brewer who told the audience: “I proudly join the museum in their 34 years of celebrating the efforts of those who courageously fought for the rights we enjoy today – many of who are from here – in this city. We recognize those in our community who are keeping the legacy alive through service and leadership.”

An important spark of that movement was ignited first in Wichita.

Late in the summer of 1958, 10 members of the youth chapter of the NAACP staged a successful sit-in at the lunch counter at the Dockum Drug Store, on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway. Like many Kansas stores at the time, Dockum Drugs would not allow black people to sit at its lunch counter.

Their nonviolent effort resulted in Dockum and eventually other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for blacks. It also sparked similar demonstrations in Oklahoma City in 1959 and several others before the well-known Greensboro, N.C., sit-in took place in 1960.

On Sunday night on a large screen in Century II, black-and-white photos of a segregated Wichita were shown as the story of the Dockum sit-in was told.

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

“Telling the stories of the African American experience is educating about the past and inspiring hope for the future,” said Gwynne Birzer, the museum’s board president.

Sunday night’s celebration recognized Baisha Waller, for her leadership in community service; and Donna Pearson McClish, for her work in improving academic excellence. Both received the museum’s 2013 Definition of Greatness awards.

“It is indeed a privilege to work with children and families,” McClish said. “I truly believe Wichita, Kansas is right on the edge of doing such great things in education. I want to be a part of it. So parents, teachers, staff and faculty of USD 259, grab hold because we are going to be on a ride that when we look back, we are going to say, ‘Wasn’t that awesome?’ ”

The night included vocal performances by the fourth- and fifth-grade choir of Abner Val Jackson Elementary and the Wiley College A Capella Choir from Marshall, Texas, as well as dances by the Greatest Gift Dance Company.

The night was about honoring the past – the local heroes who have created a powerful legacy.

Kansas has often been a keystone state for human rights when abolitionists and slavery proponents wrestled over how Kansas would enter the Union.

More than a decade after the Civil War, Southern blacks were drawn to Kansas, not only for its political climate as a free state but also for its promise of economic prosperity.

By the late 1870s, many of them had settled in Wichita, and between the 1880s and 1950s, a black business district thrived in an area roughly bounded by Central, Murdock, Main and Wichita. The district is gone now, taken as part of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Calvary Baptist Church, now home of the Kansas African American Museum and the Arkansas Valley Lodge No. 21, Prince Hall Masons, are some of the last buildings in Wichita from the original black business district. The church was saved largely through the efforts of Doris Kerr Larkins who envisioned a museum telling the African-American experience.

Her sister, Ra ’Shaluamu Bashir spoke Sunday night about that vision.

“My sister was a humble and caring person,” Bashir said. “I’d like to paraphrase and say ‘God has plans. Man has plans. And God is the best planner’ … Doris’ dream was a divine plan from God. With his guidance, her dream became reality.”

Bashir said her sister believed it was important to be strong and show fortitude.

“It is time to get rid of petty differences, all these jealousies and all these unforeseen things that seem to keep us apart,” Bashir said. “It is time to unite and respect the many, many struggles and sacrifices …. The dream won’t survive until we first change our mentality and then our heart. Ancestor Doris Kerr Larkins stood up for her dream so this dream could be our dream.”