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African Americans campaign for desegregation of department store eating facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, 1958-59
By 1955 in Kansas City, most public facilities and privately owned businesses were desegregated. However, a report by William Gremley of the Human Relations Commission (HRC) identified the problem and criticized the practice of segregated eating establishments as harmful to race relations, unethical, and unattractive to prospective conventions and foreign dignitaries. In March 1957, Gremley attempted to address this issue and meet with William G. Austin, manager of the KC Merchants' Association, but Austin never followed through.
In late 1957 the apparent inaction and lack of change in eating facilities' segregation provoked Gladys Twine, an elementary school teacher and member of the Twin Citians social club, to bring up the issue at a regular meeting. NAACP member Velma Woodson shared feelings similar to Twine: “You couldn't go any place and be accepted. You couldn't go into the stores to buy clothing. You could not sit down to eat. So I think at some point, everybody became disgusted.”
Gladys Twine suggested that the Twin Citians, a group of black female professionals, do something to protest the discriminatory practices of department store eateries, but the group as a whole decided her project was too ambitious. Twine continued to push this issue until, aided by new club president Ruth Kerford, she formed a committee to focus on department store food service policy in September 1958. With the guidance of Lucile Bluford, editor at the KC Call, Twine began to reach out to other black organizations in Kansas City and soon gained the endorsement and financial support of the local NAACP chapter (who were initially hesitant because of their commitment to a campaign for a city-wide civil rights ordinance).
The committee's first tactic was to approach each department store's management individually, but they came across similar excuses regarding adherence to the policy of the Kansas City Merchants' Association. Spurred by a history of failed negotiations with the Association in the past, the group decided to officially form the Community Committee for Social Action (CCSA) and initiate a public campaign targeting five major department stores: Macy's, Jones Store, Kline's, Peck's, and Emery, Bird, Thayer.
The CCSA began its campaign by collecting letters of protest from store customers coupled with stickers that criticized diner segregation and reached the stores via the bill payments of charge account holders. After these initial actions were ignored by the management of the stores, the CCSA began planning direct action tactics, launched a major public advertising campaign, and canvassed to gain support of the black community at large. During this first period of action, William Gremley repeatedly advised against nonviolent direct action tactics under the belief that the store managers would respond more positively to private negotiations. Rev. Arthur Marshall notably replied: “This group has attempted to negotiate in a fair way, and it is now necessary to take overt action. If they walked in Montgomery, surely we can stop buying in Kansas City.” Rev. Marshall and others within CCSA were directly influenced by a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave in Kansas City in April 1957 following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.
At this point, the group decided to launch a public boycott of the five targeted department stores, and postponed its picketing campaign until the outcome of a meeting between the Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle and store managers was known. With no progress made due to buck-passing by both the Merchants' Association and store management, the CCSA launched pickets on December 19, 1958, at all five stores. The picketing came at the perfect moment, interfering with the holiday shopping rush and reducing sales. Community leaders, white pastors, and the United Church Women supported and participated in the boycott, increasing numbers of activists and supporters.
Even after the Christmas shopping rush picketing continued to affect sales of the targeted stores, until on February 9, 1959, CCSA suspended its picketing campaign on the condition that negotiations with store managers continue. In case the talks failed, the CCSA was beginning to organize a mass parade through downtown Kansas. With the threat of a public march, for the first time the store managers and Chamber of Commerce engaged in substantial negotiations or, in the words of the CCSA, “honest and good faith discussions.”
Chamber of Commerce president Carl Rechner publicly accused the CCSA of using aggressive and immature tactics and did not foresee any substantive progress in the face of a pending large-scale demonstration in downtown Kansas City. Outraged, CCSA chairman Rev. L. Sylvester Odom responded to Rechner's criticism by restating the committee's initial demands and confirming that the march would take place soon if the negotiations were not successful. A day after Odom's response, the Merchants' Association requested to meet with the CSSA.
On February 27, 1959, a large gathering of CCSA members witnessed the management of Macy's, Kline's, and Peck's announce that they would immediately desegregate their dining areas after an orientation program for black customers. Female CCSA members subsequently organized these “diner tutorials” in addition to a schedule to ensure the facilities were not “overrun by Negroes.” Two months later, the remaining targeted department stores opened their doors to black diners after no problems arose from the other dining facilities' desegregation.