Cool Things - Civil Rights Banner
Rain clouds did not dampen the spirit of the crowd assembled at Wichita's historic Calvary Baptist Church in August 2008. People were eager to commemorate an important civil rights event that had been overlooked for 50 years. When Kevin Myles, president of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP, asked the crowd if they wanted to march, he received a resounding "yes." Members of the NAACP Youth Council took up the banner pictured here, and led hundreds of people on a nine-block march memorializing the Wichita Dockum Drug Store sit-in. They were honoring a previous generation of activists who had stood up for its rights by sitting down.
Sitting Down to Effect Change
Sit-ins are non-violent acts by which people occupy (literally "sit in") a space as a form of protest, and to effect change. This method of civil disobedience was especially popular during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, when people protested racial segregation. The most famous sit-ins of the era occurred at lunch counters in Oklahoma City and Greensboro, North Carolina. The Wichita event predates both of these, and is considered the first successful youth-driven lunch counter sit-in in the country.
Ideally, the Dockum sit-in should not have been necessary. Kansas, renowned for its stance against slavery, was the third state in the Union to pass a civil rights statute in 1874, a year before the federal government passed a similar act. The Kansas law granted "protection of citizens in their civil and public rights" and focused on providing equal access to public accommodations. The statute was honorable in its intent, but ultimately rendered ineffective by challenges in the state's court system. It fell victim to more powerful forces of community tradition and moral reinforcement, and discriminatory practices in Kansas were allowed to continue.
By the mid-20th century, some Wichitans were ready to take action. The city had a sizable African American community, and a black business district where residents received courteous, respectful service. This did not hold true at white, privately owned businesses around town. For two years, local members of the Youth Council of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) planned a sit-in. The group trained in non-violent protest methods under the direction of then-Branch president, Chester I. Lewis and Youth Council adviser Mrs. Rosie Hughes.
Lewis and Hughes believed in the guiding principles of the NAACP, to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination by ensuring political, social, and economic equality for all. The Wichita branch, founded only a few years after the national NAACP in 1909, took these principles seriously and had a reputation for confronting problems head-on through legal and political action. Many Youth Council participants had adult family members who were or had been active NAACP members.
Dockum Drug Store Counter
On July 19, 1958, a group of well-dressed youth defied the national NAACP's directive of "no direct action" and filled the stools of the Dockum Drug Store lunch counter. Dockum was chosen for the sit-in because it was popular with the locals and had a reputation for being the worst offender of African American civil rights in the city. Blacks were served only at a take-out window or at the end of the lunch counter. Under no circumstances were they allowed to eat or drink on the premises. By occupying the stools at the counter, the Youth Council prevented any in-store meals from being served. On the store's busiest days--Thursdays and Saturdays--the participants rotated in four-hour shifts from about lunchtime through the evening hours, thereby ensuring continuous occupation of stools and slowing the store's business.
The youth group's efforts received a mixed reaction from the city's residents. Local newspapers refused to cover the emerging story. When Dockum's management informed police of the group's actions, it was told the children were breaking no laws. The student group had prepared itself for a violent reaction but, luckily, only two minor instances caused participants to abandon their stools during the sit-in.
The Youth Council secured a victory during the third week of the sit-in when the owner informed the store manager to serve the students on the grounds that he was losing too much money. After a moment of celebration, Council members left the store. Once Chester Lewis confirmed the company statement, the sit-in officially ended.
Unfortunately, the student sit-in that successfully integrated nine Dockum drugstores in the city and Rexall drugstores around the state of Kansas went largely unnoticed for decades. It may have stayed that way but for the efforts of the NAACP Wichita Branch members and President Kevin Myles. During his first term, Myles heard an "urban legend" that a sit-in had occurred downtown many years earlier. He and other NAACP members traced the story's origins and interviewed living participants. Members staged a letter writing campaign that led the national NAACP to officially recognize the Dockum sit-in as the organization's first successful youth-driven sit-in. The residents of Wichita finally celebrated as a community 50 years later at a commemorative march where this banner was displayed. The march concluded at the city's Chester I. Lewis Reflection Square with speeches, a community prayer, and media interviews. Ten of the original 20+ members of the 1958 Youth Council were present to receive keys to the city from the mayor.
The NAACP Wichita Branch donated the banner to the Kansas Museum of History in 2009.
View the Dockum 50th anniversary parade video
Entry: Cool Things - Civil Rights Banner
Author: Rebecca Martin
Date Created: August 2010
Date Modified: November 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.