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Black Political Leader Ron Walters Honored In His Kansas Hometown

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ronald Walters was known for politics, as a member of Jesse Jackson's two presidential campaigns, as an author, a celebrated teacher of political science at Howard University. He also led a sit-in in his hometown of Wichita, Kan., nearly two years before the famed Greensboro sit-ins. And as member station KMUW's Carla Eckels reports, Wichita is honoring the late Ronald Walters with a library and by making it a connection to historically Black colleges (ph).

CARLA ECKELS, BYLINE: A crane lifts the nearly 2-foot letters into the air spelling out Dr. Ronald W. Walters' name on the new branch library. What's less known is his leadership of the 1958 Dockum sit-in with his cousin Carol Parks-Hahn. They knew Black people weren't allowed to sit down at the Dockum counter, but actually seeing it had an impact on them. Parks-Hahn remembers going to the counter with her aunt.

CAROL PARKS-HAHN: We had to stand and eat lunch. And that's something else that just egged me on because here is this woman on her feet every day, and she goes to lunch, and she has to stand at the end of this counter.

ECKELS: Galyn Vesey, a childhood friend of Walters who participated in the protest, also remembers those days.

GALYN VESEY: Racism was alive and well. So that was a long-range plan how we can address the injustices in Wichita toward Blacks and other minorities that weren't being dealt with. And one way would be through the sit-ins.

ECKELS: Ron Walters speaking in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD WALTERS: Most people don't understand. It was like Mississippi up North. So we tried to break it down. And we deliberately chose Dockum because Dockum was a part of a chain, the Rexall drugstore chain. And we felt that we could do something there in the heart of town that it might have a consequence.

ECKELS: Ron Walters, Carol Parks-Hahn and other young people often gathered at Parks-Hahn's home. It was a civil rights laboratory with guests such as NAACP's Rosa Parks, Roy Wilkins and Franklin Williams. It was Williams, a lawyer and one-time aide to Thurgood Marshall, who mentioned to Parks-Hahn about sit-ins.

PARKS-HAHN: And that's the idea I took to the group, and that's what we did.

ECKELS: Walters was the president of Wichita's NAACP Youth Council. The students roleplayed for the sit-in at a local church. The sit-in began on July 19. They were met with taunts and intimidation. After three weeks of a peaceful protest, the owner entered Dockum.

PARKS-HAHN: He's looking at his manager, and he said, serve them. I'm losing too much money.

ECKELS: The sit-in wasn't well known. Wanting to protect advertisers, the white-owned local papers virtually ignored it. Even the NAACP did not sanction it back then.

PAT WALTERS: He has a center at Howard University named after him.

ECKELS: That's his widow, Pat Walters, who gave $2.5 million of art to Howard to help finance an endowed chair.

P WALTERS: We're searching for the first chairperson. It's called the Dr. Ronald W. Walters Endowed Chair for Race and Black Politics.

ECKELS: Wichita Vice Mayor Brandon Johnson is excited about the Walters library and connecting to the center in D.C.

BRANDON JOHNSON: It offers Wichitans an opportunity to learn more of the history that had not been taught as much as it should. And I think a collaboration with the Walters Center is key to that education.

ECKELS: Walters' widow remembers when then-attorney Thurgood Marshall met a young Ron Walters. Marshall did not favor the student protest, saying things should be worked out in the courts. Walters politely disagreed. Years later, Marshall and Walters met again. Pat Walters recalls what her husband told her the Supreme Court justice said.

P WALTERS: In hindsight, what you did was the correct thing, and I was wrong, because look what happened to history.

ECKELS: For NPR News, I'm Carla Eckels in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.