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Celebrate local civil rights heroes

The Dockum Drug Store in downtown Wichita, where an August 1958 sit-in led to the lunch counter being desegregated.
The Dockum Drug Store in downtown Wichita, where an August 1958 sit-in led to the lunch counter being desegregated.

This week marks 60 years since an intrepid group of Wichita youth triumphantly concluded a small protest that led to far-reaching desegregation across the state.

In July 1958, a dozen black teens outfitted in Sunday-best garb entered Dockum Drug Store at the corner of Douglas and Broadway, and politely sat at the lunch counter.

Their effort to request service preceded the far better known Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins — and, consequently, the modern civil rights movement as we know it — by a full 18 months.

The bold desegregationists — who ranged from 15 to 22 — belonged to the local youth chapter of the NAACP, which met at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, the YMCA and St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Pioneers in successfully employing the sit-in tactic, the Wichita students were not new to the national struggle for racial justice.

In her illuminating historical account, “Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72,” Dr. Gretchen Eick documents several key events that influenced the heroic youth who months later would take historic action.

Under the leadership of Vivian Parks, from late 1955 until 1957, the NAACP chapter in Wichita blossomed from a handful of attendees to a few dozen — mostly women.

Parks packed her executive committee with activists and brought to Wichita civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Mamie Bradley, mother of the murdered child Emmett Till.

It’s little coincidence the same month as the Dockum sit-in, a black teen visited Wichita from Arkansas to speak publicly on his and eight fellow students’ globally celebrated efforts to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School.

Securing racial equality required effort in Wichita, where records show that in the 1920s roughly 5,600 African Americans lived alongside 6,000 Ku Klux Klan members.

When young visionaries Carol Parks (Vivian’s daughter) and Ron Walters pitched a serious sit-in at Dockum, and gained support from fellow NAACP youth-group members, the national organization refused.

“These are not NAACP tactics,” claimed a national staff member, who urged Wichita’s youth to pursue litigation instead of direct action.

Nonetheless, the students pressed on.

“Dissent in Wichita” chronicles that the sit-in operated “quietly, from before lunch through the dinner hour, three days a week for nearly three weeks” with “well-dressed and orderly” participants “respectfully on their stools and facing forward,” expectantly awaiting service.

In response, Dockum shut down the store a few times, hanging a “temporarily closed” sign — but losing business to avoid integrated service would not prove sustainable.

On Aug. 7, numerous white youth stormed the eatery and “attempted to start a brawl,” according to NAACP chapter records.

On Aug. 9, antagonism escalated, with a gang of white youth harassing protestors and ripping up their signs. Police declined to intervene.

Walters excused himself to make several urgent phone calls.

In little time, three carloads of black youth — some wielding knives, clubs and a pistol — arrived at Dockum.

The white aggressors wordlessly scurried out the back of the eatery.

Two days later, Rexall — the largest drugstore chain in Kansas — desegregated not only the Dockum store in Wichita, but indeed all locations across the state.

To honor the 60-year anniversary of the bravery of these Wichita trailblazers, consider joining me in making a $60 donation to the Kansas African American History Museum, visiting their edifying exhibits, obtaining a copy of “Dissent in Wichita,” or spending a reflective moment at the bronze-sculpture tribute downtown entitled “The Soda Fountain.”

Wichita’s local heroes are truly worth celebrating.

Wichita native Jordan Buckley is a screenplay writer and community organizer in San Marcos, Texas.