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Mirror of Justice
Some people are quite rightly remembered and renowned in the history books for their lives and achievements. Many more, no less deserving, slip into the shadows of history and are forgotten.
In Wichita, Kansas, near the corner of Broadway and Douglas, there is a small plaza tucked in between two buildings. On one wall of the plaza is a sculpture of a lunch counter with several people sitting at it. It's so very life-like that in nice weather people routinely sit down on the empty stools to eat their lunches at the counter. There is no plaque to explain the sculpture.
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.
A group of local white toughs came by trying to intimidate them. The police were called to break it up but left immediately without challenging the whites, saying they had instructions to keep their hands off. After an emergency phone call a group of local black men arrived, armed, to defend the protesters. The white youths retreated, leaving the store.
And the young people kept coming back and sitting there at the lunch counter, silently, day after day, waiting to be served.
They asked for help and support from the national NAACP, but the national organization refused to endorse or even acknowledge their actions. The confrontational tactic was against NAACP policy. The national newswires picked it up and the story went out on the national wire, but few papers ran it and it quickly vanished.
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 [Chester Lewis--see updates below] 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.
Something important started there in Wichita near the corner of Broadway and Douglas. Those who started it were almost forgotten by history. Almost, but not quite. And today, on a small plaza tucked in between two buildings in downtown Wichita, Kansas is a sculpture of a lunch counter with several people sitting at it. It has no plaque to explain it.
Some day soon, it will.
[Welcome, Instapundit readers! Please feel free to poke around and check out our cozy home, which sports an assortment of centered commentary on everything from current political issues, religion, military strategy and tactics, amusing YouTube videos and the truly random. No club card required. Dissent and discussion welcomed, we ask only that you play nice and respect others. For more on the history of this sculpture, see this comment. The pictures in this post were taken and copyrighted by me, but may be used freely with attribution to this post as source. A note to let us know you're using them would be nice too, but is not required. Please don't hotlink 'em, just go ahead and copy.]
UPDATE: A reader forwards this link about a successful Iowa protest in 1948 that involved sit-ins, though it was eventually won through the courts and not the protests. It certainly took no less courage for the protesters. These are the real roots of the civil rights movement, the folks who organized and acted locally and at great risk to themselves, and we need to hear more about them and record what they did while they're still around.
Which was why I wrote this post in the first place. There were other sit-ins before Dockum, even in Wichita--but the Dockum protest was the first that worked, and it opened up Dockum/Rexall stores statewide. That earlier attempts failed where the Dockum protest succeeded does not make the earlier efforts any less heroic.
UPDATE December 2006: Reader Elaine from Wichita reports in the comments below that the Wichita Park Board voted on 12/11/2006 to re-name the pocket park the Chester I. Lewis Park. The change will still have to be reviewed by an advisory board and approved by the City Council.
Chester I. Lewis (1929-1990) was the Wichita attorney and local NAACP chapter head who helped organize the Dockum sit-in, and who mentored the youth involved. He later became a staff attorney for the national NAACP and was deeply involved in the national civil rights movement as one of the "Young Turks" who moved the NAACP from a strictly legislative agenda to a more confrontational (but non-violent) agenda.
UPDATE January 2007: On January 9th, the Wichita City Council, with attendees including Chester Lewis' daughter Brenda, unanimously voted to APPROVE renaming Reflection Square Park the Chester I. Lewis Park.
UPDATE August 2008: See new post on the 50th anniversary celebration of the Dockum Sit-ins.