An Untold Story: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest

WASHINGTON, (March 4, 2010)

Successful Wichita Sit-In Is Subject of Black History Program

Fifty-two years ago the indignities of segregation brought Ronald Walters and Carole Watson together in a common cause that helped launch the civil rights movement. The Kansas college students were on the front lines of the protests over race relations when they participated in sit-ins at the Dockum Drug Store lunch counter in Wichita, Kan, in 1958. Yesterday the two non-violent revolutionaries met again in Washington.

Walters led the 40 college and high school students who desegregated a popular Wichita eating establishment in one of the earliest civil rights sit-ins in the country. The Wichita protests began nearly two years before the famous lunch counter demonstrations in Greensboro, N.C., precipitated a wave of sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and stand-ins that gradually integrated public facilities across America.

The Wichita protests, Walters told a Black History Month* program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts on March 3, have remained largely unknown because many Northern editors downplayed the race friction occurring in their own back yards. Sit-ins occurred in at least 15 cities between 1957 and 1960 before the Greensboro protests attracted national attention, he said.

Walters, the recently retired director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and Watson, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, were young college students when they joined a group of protesters who took turns sitting-in at the eight-stool lunch counter in downtown Wichita starting on on July 12, 1958. Walters, author of more than 100 articles and ten books including The Price of Racial Reconciliation (2008) and Watson, author of Prologue (1985), had seen each other only once in passing during the last half century.

When the drug store manager abruptly ordered his waitresses on August 7 to “serve them,” and the sit-in ended without fanfare, Walters and Watson returned to their studies, both eventually earning Ph.D.s and building careers in Washington.

Their protests, Walters said yesterday, eventually led to the desegregation of the entire Rexall drug chain to which the Dockum store belonged, and helped to inspire young people to stand up for their rights across the nation. Watson remembers her part: She sat on her counter stool when a white bully held up a coat hanger as if to rip her face. She didn’t move. And until yesterday, she never talked about it.

* - The program, originally scheduled in February, Black History Month, was rescheduled because of a snowstorm that closed government offices.

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