This year is the 60th anniversary of the first successful student-led sit-in of the modern civil rights movement. And it didn’t happen in the South, but rather in the heart of the Midwest: in Wichita.
It was 1958, and 20-year-old Ron Walters and his cousin, 19-year-old Carol Parks Hahn, decided something had to be done about the whites-only lunch counters in Wichita.
Both were leaders in the local NAACP Youth Council, where they learned about ways to fight discrimination. Working with other youth, the two decided to organize a sit-in at Dockum Drug Store, a popular eatery with a soda fountain in downtown Wichita.
Walters died in 2010; in 2008 he recalled the sit-in to KMUW.
At the time, Walters was a first-year student at Wichita State University; he had just graduated from East High and was working downtown. He noticed that he and other black Wichitans couldn’t eat at the restaurants downtown — they had to queue up at the carryout line, get their food and leave.
“That was demeaning, I thought,” Walters said. “For whites who obviously wanted to get some food quick and go on, of course it wasn't a problem. But for blacks that was the only option they had.”
What food they were served came in disposable containers, Parks Hahn said.
“We never knew what it was to just sit there and have a glass and dishes and so forth, and plates,” she said.
It was humiliating. And they couldn’t tolerate it anymore.
Walters became president of the local NAACP Youth Council; meetings were often held at his cousin’s home, which Walters said became a “kind of laboratory” for him in the civil rights movement.
“The family was imbued in this,” Walters said, “and that was really a very important turning point in my own life.”
Parks Hahn’s mother, Vivian, was secretary and treasurer of the local NAACP and frequently brought prominent figures to their home: Roy Wilkins, a leader of the NAACP; Chester Lewis Jr., president of the Wichita chapter; Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till; and Rosa Parks.
“We were exposed to all of these people who influenced us and encouraged us, motivated us,” Parks Hahn said. “So here you have this kind of motivation to say, ‘We need to keep going.’”
That motivation help the teenagers organize the sit-in — a concept Parks Hahn learned about only after speaking with an attorney who served as the West Coast regional secretary for the civil rights organization.
“I picked up on that and I said, ‘Well, how nice, maybe we could do something like that,’” she said. “We had nothing to prohibit us from going and sitting. We are within the law to sit and expect to be served, and so we just took this idea to the youth council and they carried it on.”
Prentice Lewis was on the NAACP Youth Council in 1958; he had joined after facing discrimination at various restaurants downtown.
"There are issues that we're discussing and dealing with and then comes a time for some kind of action,” Lewis said. “And the sit-in was that action that took place following discussions and debates about what's going on, how we're being treated and what we can do about it.”
Joan Williams also became active during the sit-in campaign. During her teen years, she worked at a clothing store in downtown Wichita. She decided to get involved with the sit-in after running an errand for her boss at Dockum Drug Store.
“It wasn't anything out of the ordinary for the owner to come and say, ‘You, go down to Dockum’s and pick me up a so-and-so, and I would go and I would think well, I could get me a Coke while I'm here, you know,” Williams said. “But I never could. So instead of getting it to go, I wouldn’t purchase it.”
Galyn Vesey, now a director of a project that researches black Wichita, said he knew, along with the other teenagers, that the time had come to make a difference.
“We cared about one another so it was just, to me, it was just the right thing to do,” he said. “We were loved, we were nurtured, we were mentored and we knew that our parents who lined up outside of Dockum, waiting for [families in] East Kellogg and College Hill to go to work to clean those white homes and prepare food, were being disrespected because they could have gone in while waiting for the bus to come get a cup of coffee.
“We noticed all of that. We were taught to be observant.”
Though they frequently went to Dockum to purchase items, they still couldn’t eat there.
“We needed to experience more fully what it was like as teenagers living in Wichita,” Parks Hahn said. “We knew there were barriers to some of the experiences we needed to have. We needed to be able to go into a drugstore, have a hamburger and a Coke, have casual conversation, smile to the people next to us, have real community with each other, so this was something we as a group decided we needed to pursue.”
Walters said many people don’t understand just how tightly segregated Wichita was.
“It was like Mississippi up north,” he explained.
The group deliberately chose Dockum for the sit-in because it was part of the national Rexall drugstore chain.
“We felt that we could do something there, in the heart of town, that it might have a consequence,” Walters said.
'We were primed'
In the spring of 1958, the teenagers began putting their plan into action — but first they needed to practice.
“We were primed,” Parks Hahn said. “We rehearsed everything to do, and we knew that we when we went to Dockum’s.
“We were to sit facing forward, [have] no conversation with each other, no reading, nothing. We didn't want to give the impression that we were there for any other reason than to be served, and that's how we behaved.”
They held rehearsals at St. Peter Claver Church, using a manual from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization with roots in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The teenagers prepared for every situation: what to do if someone spat on them, or hit them.
“We used a nonviolent resistance,” Walters said. They didn’t want any potential incident to “devalue our cause.”
Finally, they were ready to start the sit-in. The teenagers purposely wore their dress-up clothes. Joan Williams said their appearance, along with the ability to stay focused, was important.
“You had to be dressed appropriately and you had to look the part and then you had to ask if you could order,” she said. “And then after that, after they wouldn't serve you, you just had to sit there.
“So while you were sitting there, all of these people were walking behind you and you just wanted to make sure no one hit you in your back or pushed you where you’d hit the counter or anything, so that's what you thought about. That's what I thought about.”
On the first day of the sit-in, in the summer of 1958, Parks Hahn got in her yellow Chevy and drove downtown.
“I parked, and I walked about two or three blocks to Dockum’s,” she said. “And I remember it very vividly. It was a beautiful day, and I walked in. I was the very first one to show up.”
She sat at the counter on the middle stool, facing west, and ordered a Coke.
“The waitresses were very nice and pleasant until they realized that we were a group of African American youth coming in to be served,” she said, “and of course they had instructions to not serve us.”
The Ambassador Hotel now stands where Dockum Drug Store once was. In 2008, it was still under construction, just an empty building. Standing at the corner of Douglas and Broadway, Parks Hahn reflected back on that first day of the sit-in.
“We were all coming from different directions,” she said. “We did not come as a group. We came individually.”
Parks Hahn didn’t expect service when she ordered her soda, and was surprised when one arrived. The waitress didn’t realize she was African American.
“And then the others came in and they sat, and she looked at them, she looked at me, and she leaned forward and said, ‘You’re not colored, are you dear?’ And I said, 'Oh, yes I am,’” Parks Hahn said. “And then she pulled away. She pulled back because the store policy was not to serve colored people, as we were called at that time. And that was the last time she spoke to us.”
Setting a precedent
Though there had been other attempted sit-ins dating back to the 1940s, a demonstration of this kind had never happened before, explained Gretchen Eick, author of "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest.”
“There had never been a sustained, student-led sit-in that had been maintained for three weeks and that was able to persuade the powers … that control the drugstore chain that they were losing too much money from the students’ very polite protest and sustained protest,” Eick said.
The teenagers’ success in persuading the drugstore chain to desegregate all of its stores in Kansas “set a precedent,” she said. It would be many years until other convenience stores — like Walmart and Target — to follow suit.
“But it was the drug stores in the Midwest and here in Wichita, Kansas, that really began what would be a very significant strategy,” Eick said, “a strategy that would change America, would change the way business was done in the United States.”
The change did not come without some anxious moments. Parks Hahn said she was glad that the youth group's mentor, Chester Lewis Jr., was just a phone call away. Lewis, president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, was a prominent lawyer who gave the students free legal advice.
One day, while Parks Hahn sat nervously at the Dockum lunch counter, police officers paid a visit.
“I turned around and they were standing behind me,” she said. “I looked at them and I realized that this was not, you know, a friendly visit.”
One officer had a billy club in his hand.
“So, I carefully climbed off the stool and went over to the phone and I called Chester Lewis and he said, ‘Tell everybody to go home,’” Parks Hahn said. “And that's what we did.”
That wasn't the only time the students were made to feel uneasy. But despite outside interference, Walters said the teenagers had to remain in a state of readiness.
“We had to keep those seats occupied because if we were going to cost the establishment money, it meant that we had to be there on the stools,” he said.
The times they weren’t able to fill up all the stools, white customers still wouldn’t sit with them at the counter.
“A lot of them backed away,” Walters said. “In other words, their backing away meant that they participated in the boycott.”
Other times, though, “some came in, looked at what was happening, [and] cursed us out,” he said. “Because they understood then that we were depriving them of this service. So, we had a different kinds of reactions.”
The students had to be constantly prepared to attend the sit-in, never knowing when they might be called up.
“Relaxation wasn't there for us at this time,” Parks Hahn said. “But it was worth every effort we put into it.”
After more than three weeks of the sit-in, the day came when the owner finally made a change.
“He came to the door and he looked directly back, not at us, but he looked to the back of the store, to his manager,” Parks Hahn explained. “And he said, ‘Serve them, I'm losing too much money.’
“And then he left. It was that simple. And the waitresses were relieved, we were all relieved, and they served us and we ate and then we left.”
Walters was doing military training in Colorado the weekend the sit-in ended; Chester Lewis called to tell him the good news.
The Wichita sit-in desegregated the largest drugstore chain in Kansas almost two years before similar sit-ins began in the South.
“That's significant because segregation was practiced in the Midwest and elsewhere in the United States and we forget that and tend to think that segregation was a Southern phenomenon,” Eick said. “It was a national phenomenon, and by the same token, the civil rights movement was a national phenomenon.”
Eick said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commended the Wichita students, and students in Oklahoma City who led their own sit-ins shortly after. He credited the teens with “developing a strategy that would spread and change the nation,” she said.
Despite its significance, the Dockum Drug Store sit-in never achieved national visibility, for a variety of reasons: The local newspaper did not want to contend with disgruntled business advertisers, the national NAACP did not sanction sit-ins at the time, and a year and a half later sit-ins would erupt across the South and attract media attention.
“The problem was that the media covered the story of the sit-ins in 1960 as a Southern story,” Walters said. “They didn't cover what happened in Kansas and Oklahoma because it wasn't the dramatic South. So, it had the effect of actually divorcing us from the rest of the movement.”
It wasn’t until much later, in 2006, that the NAACP, at the insistence of the Wichita Chapter, acknowledged the protest that had started it all.
Sixty years on
It’s been 60 years since the sit-in; many of the participants still live in Wichita. The park downtown near Douglas and Broadway is now officially the Chester I. Lewis Reflection Square Park; a bronze replica of the Dockum lunch counter is there.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Carol Parks Hahn had lunch at the upscale restaurant inside the Ambassador Hotel, at the very location where she once was refused service.
“I don’t feel as though I’m in Wichita, actually, because this is the first time I’ve even attempted to go back into this building since 1958,” she said. “Having a leisurely lunch [here] is a new experience, and it’s hope for the future for us and our descendants and all the people who are going to become Wichitans.
“Wichita is growing by leaps and bounds, and I can see a real fine future for us here."