WASHINGTON — Years before desegregation sit-ins made national headlines in 1960, college students in Wichita, Kan., and Oklahoma City stubbornly refused to leave whites-only lunch counters.
They were threatened with beatings, but held fast and won their battles, laying the groundwork for a movement that would spread across the country.
The often overlooked demonstrators, all former NAACP youth members, were honored Wednesday — nearly 50 years later — at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“It’s a good thing to correct history, to finally link Oklahoma City and Wichita to the sit-in movement and the fights for students’ rights,” said Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland who led the 1958 Wichita sit-in and received a medal from the civil rights group.
The ceremony took place on the fifth day of the NAACP’s 97th annual meeting, which is being attended by more than 4,000 people and runs through Thursday. Also Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama, spoke to the convention. President Bush is scheduled to speak Thursday, his first visit to the gathering since becoming president.
Research leads to recognition
The recognition for the first sit-ins was sparked when current NAACP youth members researched the history of the NAACP Youth and College Division, which is marking its 70th year, said Stefanie Brown, the division’s director.
“We were uncovering the examples of the way our division contributed to national civil rights, and some of the outstanding examples were in Wichita and Oklahoma City,” Brown said. In social movements, “it’s oftentimes been young people who have been those foot soldiers who’ve gone out to do some of the hardest work. But they were not getting the credit they deserved.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of youth NAACP members lobbied legislators on Capitol Hill to reauthorize expiring provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is under consideration in the Senate. “This is what it was all about in the 1950s and ’60s,” Brown said. “This will help them connect history to civil rights now.”
Walters said he plans to give his medal to NAACP youth in Wichita. “I want to show them they can make change,” he said. “If they feel strongly enough about these issues, they can do it.”
Sit-ins involved blacks who protested local racial segregation laws by banding together to demand service, often at whites-only lunch counters. They refused to leave until they were served. Though they faced threats, arrests and often violent backlash, they energized desegregation efforts nationwide.
The first known sit-in was a three-week protest in Wichita in August 1958, said Gretchen Eick, a historian at Friends University in Wichita. Oklahoma City soon followed, but neither got national media attention, she said.
Youth sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960, garnered heavy media attention, sparked similar protests in more than 50 other cities and became widely but mistakenly regarded as the first of their kind, Eick said.
Movement not limited to the south
“People who didn’t live through that era think of the movement only as a southern movement, but it was not,” said Eick, who wrote “Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-72.”
Some NAACP members quietly grumbled when national officials prepared to honor sit-ins that predated Greensboro. But in his keynote speech to the convention, NAACP board chairman Julian Bond confirmed that the Greensboro youths took their cues from the earlier demonstrations.
“Any history record of the civil rights movement you pick up, any book goes back to 1960 and Greensboro,” said Rev. Amos Brown, a current NAACP board member who helped plan the Oklahoma City and Wichita actions. “I’ve called a lot of editors and told them the truth, and they say, ’Oh, we didn’t know.”’
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