Sunday, 29 October 2006

The real beginning of the civil rights sit-in movement

This post at Stubborn Facts literally had tears streaming down my cheeks. It tells the story of the true and almost forgotten beginnings of the civil rights movement in the US, when a group of black teenagers, with immense dignity and perseverance, insisted on being served at a drugstore lunch counter. There is a memorial in downtown Wichita, Kansas, with no explanatory plaque.
If there were, that plaque would note that on July 19, 1958, several black teenagers, members of the local NAACP chapter, entered the downtown Dockum Drug Store (then the largest drug store chain in the state) and sat down at the lunch counter. They were ignored. They kept coming back and sitting at the counter, from before lunch through the dinner hour, at least twice a week for the next several weeks. They sat quietly, creating no disturbance, but refusing to leave without being served.

The store tried to wait them out by ignoring them. They kept coming back and sitting there, silently, day after day, waiting to be served. On one occasion three police officers tried to coerce and intimidate the teenagers to leave, and succeeded. But they came back, and the police did not return. They were breaking no law, only a store policy, and the store was not willing to challenge them directly.


On August 11, while the early arrivals were sitting at the counter waiting for their friends to show, a white man around 40 walked in and looked at them for several minutes. Then he looked at the store manager, and said, simply, "Serve them. I'm losing too much money." He then walked back out. That man was the owner of the Dockum drug store chain.

That day the lawyer for the local NAACP branch called the store's state offices, and was told by the chain vice-president that "he had instructed all of his managers, clerks, etc., to serve all people without regard to race, creed or color." State-wide. They had won, completely. Their actions inspired others, and the sit-in movement spread to Oklahoma City. By the middle of 1959, the national NAACP was losing disaffected members for refusing to endorse the scattered but spreading sit-in protests, gave in, and sponsored the Greensboro sit-ins.

Nineteen months before the Greensboro sit-ins that have been credited with being the start of the civil rights sit-in movement, it really began at a downtown drug store in Wichita, Kansas. The Dockum sit-ins were largely ignored by the NAACP in their archives, probably out of embarrasment, and were unknown even to many civil rights historians. That error was corrected by the NAACP this summer.
Do go around to Stubborn Facts to read the whole inspiring story. It reminds me yet again that you do not need fame, power, or connections to effect real change.

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shlemazl said...

Good post. Nice little memorial they have there.

Tully said...

Thanks for the notice, and I'm glad I could move you. I tried to comment here and thank you before the Instalanche, but Blogger was being difficult. Sigh.

As you might have guessed, I'm one of the people that wants there to be a plaque near that sculpture that mentions the Dockum story. That powerful piece of art (and it is) has come to mean something special to the community, and deserves the notice.

The courage and determination of some of the people back then still astounds me. It affirms my faith that people WILL rise to the call of the times, when the times require it.


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