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The brave, forgotten Kansas lunch counter sit-in that helped change America

A newspaper clipping from the Aug. 7, 1958, issue of the Enlightener, a Black newspaper in Wichita shows the Dockum Drug Store lunch counter sit-in, one of the earliest in the United States. (Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum)

On a beautiful Saturday morning in July 1958, 19-year-old Carol Parks unexpectedly started a movement. She parked her yellow Chevrolet in downtown Wichita and walked through the revolving door of Dockum Drug Store. She took a seat at the lunch counter and ordered a Coca-Cola. She did this, she said, “as if I’d been doing it all my life.”

Only, she hadn’t. Not once. She was an African American woman and, at the time, lunch counters across the United States were segregated, with Black patrons relegated to takeout windows and standing sections.

Parks’s order was a small act of defiance, and the White waitress was flummoxed. Especially when she saw another young Black woman hop off a bus and sit down two stools away. Then another woman. And another. Ten young protesters — all members of Wichita’s NAACP Youth Council, of which Parks was vice president — occupying the counter’s seats. The store’s management put up a sign: “This Fountain Temporarily Closed.”

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This was the start of the first successful student-led sit-in of the civil rights movement, a protest that would last three weeks. It led the popular drugstore chain, Rexall, to change its segregation policy across the state of Kansas, and started a chain of events that led to the Greensboro sit-in 19 months later. Still, few people outside Wichita — even many inside it — have any idea this happened. The story illustrates the gaps in our historical record, and how they come to be.

‘We lived in two societies’

“You have to right wrongs occasionally. And that’s what we did,” said Parks, now Carol Parks Hahn, 80. She organized the Dockum sit-in alongside her cousin, Ronald Walters, president of the NAACP Youth Council.

Walters was 20, a freshman at Wichita State University known for his charisma — friends joked that he’d carried an attache case since age 13. The idea for the sit-in didn’t come as a “flash of insight,” he later wrote, but developed over more than a year.

Segregation was technically illegal in Kansas — the state had passed a civil rights statute in 1874. This was a place that “bled” over whether slavery would be allowed, that was the origin point of Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 led to the integration of schools. Still, segregation ruled all.

Black History Month 2021

“That’s the way it was in Wichita,” said Robert Newby, now 85 and then the oldest sit-in participant at 22, a drummer in the Wichita State University band. “Even though there were no Jim Crow signs, the fact is the racial rules were very clear.”

Karen Phillips, then 17 — now Karen Ware, 79 — remembers the shock of learning those rules. “My elementary school was segregated. I had all Black teachers and we were treated very respectfully — as if we knew things,” she said. “But when I went to junior high school, in biology class, I remember the teacher never calling on me. I would raise my hand and he’d ignore me.”

Moving out of Wichita’s supportive Black community stuck with other members of the Youth Council, too. “By junior high-ish, first part of high school, we began to see that we lived in two societies,” said Galyn Vesey, now 83. “And the other wasn’t so kind.”

Parks’s mother, Vivian, had been the first female president of Wichita’s NAACP branch. The family home was a gathering place for Black leaders visiting the city. During a trip, Franklin Williams — the NAACP’s Western Region Director — described to Parks and Walters a protest on a California college campus in the 1940s, where students sat down at an eatery and read newspapers, denying seats to paying customers.

Walters, especially, latched onto the idea of using economic pressure. He and Parks brought the idea of organizing a “sit-down” to the Youth Council.

“It seemed to be the thing to do,” said Prentice Lewis, then 20, who had tried talking to store managers about integrating, without success. Many downtown stores were guilty of segregation, but the Youth Council focused on Dockum, a local chain of nine stores. “They were downtown in the central area, and everybody knew it,” Lewis said. The lunch counter had both a front and back entrance, ideal for their plan to enter one-by-one.

The group started prepping in the basement of St. Peter Claver Church. Chester Lewis, a young attorney and the president of the Wichita branch of the NAACP, taught the principles of nonviolence. From there, as Walters wrote, “We simulated the environment of the lunch counter and went through the drill of sitting and role-playing what might happen. We took turns playing White folks with laughter, dishing out embarrassment that might come.”

In these sessions, the group homed in on what would become hallmarks of civil rights movement sit-ins — wearing their Sunday best, sitting quietly, never spinning in their seats. “You’re not down there to have a party,” Vesey said. “You’re in there for one reason, and that’s to get service.”

After months of practice, the group felt ready. But the day before the protest, Chester Lewis and Vivian Parks sent a telegram to the NAACP’s national office, sharing the Youth Council’s plan. The office said to call it off. “These are not NAACP tactics,” Herb Wright, the organization’s Youth Secretary, explained. Higher-ups agreed — their focus was litigation, not direct action. Putting children in harm’s way was too risky.

Chester Lewis and Vivian Parks called an emergency meeting of Wichita’s NAACP branch. Lewis made the case for the Youth Council, and convinced them to support the action. He assured the adults that the young protesters had a safety protocol. During each shift, one person would be assigned to go to the pay phone in the hall and call him if there were issues. In the face of trouble, the youth wouldn’t be alone.

‘I’m losing too much money’

The next night, with hearts pounding, Parks and the others took their stools at Dockum. Several parents gathered in the park across the street, just in case. When the soda fountain closed, Walters felt excited. “This is what we were hoping for — a shut-off of the flow of dollars,” he wrote.

The protest continued every Thursday night, when the store was open late, and every Saturday, when it was busiest. “We had shifts,” said Lequetta Diggs, now 80, who served as the youth council’s secretary. “One group would come and relieve a group that had been there for a while.”

For many, their parents knew where they were. But Vesey kept his participation a secret, telling his parents he was playing basketball at the YMCA. “My dad lugged beef for a living in a packing house and, even at that age, it occurred to me, ‘What if the manager of Dockum’s is playing golf with the [manager at his plant], and it was, “Did you know that Harry Vesey’s son is down at Dockum’s raising hell?” ’ I felt my dad would have been fired.”

Newby confirms that shifts weren’t easy. “They were tension-filled weeks,” he said. “You had a lot of people looking at you and making judgments. You didn’t know what would happen.”

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The group was spit on. They were taunted. In the third week, things escalated and they had to enact their safety plan three times. The first came on a Thursday night, when two police officers entered and, rapping billy clubs against their hands, told the group to go. Parks called Chester Lewis, and the group left quietly. Shortly after, on Aug. 7, “a group of White kids came in acting kind of thuggish,” Newby recalled. Again, nonviolence prevailed.

Two days later, on Aug. 9, a bigger threat. As Walters wrote, “The store began to fill up with tough young whites, members of a motorcycle gang.”

Walters called the police, but when they arrived, it was clear they wouldn’t intervene. “I felt that we had been abandoned to the mob, so I had to do something dramatic,” he wrote. He called Turner’s Corner Drug, an African American hangout. Minutes later, several cars of Black youths pulled up to Dockum.

Diggs recalls this moment, seeing the young men line up outside the windows, knowing the group had backup. She notes that several parents appeared too, as word of what was happening spread.

Vesey remembers being down the block at Forum Cafeteria, where the protesters would actually eat, since Dockum wouldn’t serve them. “Someone came through the door, and said, ‘You better get over there to Dockum’s. We may have trouble,’ ” he said.

He rushed back, just in time to see the motorcycle gang leaving, and one of its members shoulder-checked him on the way out. “He didn’t hurt me,” Vesey said, “but I became angry because I knew what he was doing. Besides, I didn’t get to finish my raisin pie.”

He tells the story with a wink, but it was clear to the Youth Council and the larger Black community that they’d avoided a powder-keg moment. On Sunday, there was a town meeting at New Hope Baptist Church filled with parents.

“Chester Lewis got up and answered questions,” Diggs said. “The parents were still reluctant but they felt a little bit more confident it would be okay.” They expanded the sit-in to more days a week.

The next morning, Parks and others headed back to their stools. But something different happened. An unfamiliar man entered and looked at the Youth Council. “Serve them,” he said. “I’m losing too much money.”

Just like that, with a statement revealing the wisdom of Walters’s focus on economic pressure, the sit-in was over.

For Parks, it was a quiet victory. She got to enjoy a Coca-Cola from a glass, at the counter. Diggs remembers a celebratory moment. She was at her summer job, lifeguarding at a pool. “Someone came out there and announced, ‘They’re serving them, they’re serving them.’ It was like, ‘Yay!’ It was a community roar.”

‘Dignity and destiny’

Chester Lewis spoke to the vice president of Dockum Drug Stores and confirmed the store, “agreed to abolish all discriminatory practices as of Monday morning, at 10 a.m., August 11,” Lewis wrote in a letter to Herb Wright. The news that followed was even better — Rexall, as ubiquitous then as McDonald’s or Starbucks is today, was desegregating all its stores in Kansas.

“Nothing happened magically, but things did begin to change,” Newby said.

Eight days after the victory, the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City, led by 16-year-old Barbara Posey and adult adviser Clara Luper, kicked off a sit-in of their own. Though theirs was larger, more violent and lasted longer, the Oklahoma City Youth Council got the support of the national NAACP.

From there, sit-ins popped up in 13 cities as they became the norm in Wichita, too.

Almost two years to the day after the Wichita Youth Council took their seats, Woolworth’s ended segregation in response to the sit-in started by the Greensboro Four. Two of them — Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair Jr. — were members of NAACP Youth Councils. After Woolworth’s, sit-ins caught on like wildfire. Segregation policies burned like trees.

A year before, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had applauded the Dockum sit-in participants and others taking action in a speech at the 50th Annual NAACP Convention.

“These young people have given Negroes everywhere a new sense of dignity and destiny,” he said. “Their noble activities have already been stenciled on millions of mental sheets, and their names have been etched in innumerable hearts.”

Except, for the participants of the Dockum sit-in, they haven’t been.

Some 30 years later, the Kansas City Star ran a single article about the event. Walters, by then a notable professor, wrote a pair of academic journal articles. In 2001, historian Gretchen Cassel Eick published the book, “Dissent in Wichita,” with a first chapter that told the story. Until recently, that was it.

The explanations the protesters and their documenters point to are varied: students were too humble to claim credit; half of them were female; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became more closely aligned with sit-ins; they were located in the Midwest while the narrative of the civil rights movement crystallized around the South.

The NAACP’s lack of acknowledgment was clearly a major factor — the organization didn’t formally acknowledge the Wichita Youth Council’s efforts until 2006.

The group’s choice of store almost certainly played a part. While Dockum was picked for local renown, it also happened to be a powerful regional advertiser, and there was little coverage in Wichita's White newspapers.

Prisca Barnes, who worked with Vesey on a book and exhibit titled “People, Pride, and Promise,” thinks the lack of recognition comes down to a lack of imagery.

“Images helped move the civil rights movement forward,” she said. “When you saw coffee poured on people’s heads — that was necessary.” For the Dockum sit-In, there was only the one photograph in Wichita’s now defunct Black newspaper, the Enlightener. “They just didn’t have the bright lights on them.”

Even without recognition, the participants of the Dockum sit-in went on to lead extraordinary lives. Many earned master’s degrees and PhDs. Ron Walters, who died in 2010, was a campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s presidential run in 1984 and an architect of the Congressional Black Caucus; Peggy Hatcher Wesley, the youngest participant at age 15, was the first Black bank officer at a local bank.

Vesey says the sit-in crystallized something. “It inspired me to understand that my reason for being here on this Earth is to do what others have done before me,” he said, “to seek justice, kindness and love of humanity.”

When Ware reflects, she feels that too. “I think of the unity of all of us, the camaraderie of all of us for a common purpose,” she said. “I remember the courage that everybody had in sticking to it. No one backed out. No one ran away. No one fell out. We were in it together.”

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