There’s a turning point in almost every Civil Rights advocate’s life. They may have been taking it, or observing it, for years, but that moment, that incident, that thing, changes their course for life.
For Chester Owens, that moment happened in Alabama in the winter of 1946. A preteen, Owens had grown accustomed to the cultural customs of the South that relegated Black men to boys who must give deference to all things White, even a White man’s dog. He and his brother Gus, who was 2 years older, made a little money selling the Kansas City Call. Every Friday they would get 100 papers and had no problem selling them to people who wanted to hear news from “their” perspective.
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That week, the boys saw a story in the paper about Isaac Woodard Jr. He was a decorated African-American World II veteran who had recently been discharged from the Army. Woodard was taking the bus home when he was attacked, while still in uniform, by a South Carolina policeman who gouged his eyes out, blinding him for life.
“I can remember both of us crying. I was 12 years old and Gus was 14, but we committed then and there when we got old enough, we were going to do what we could to stop things like that from happening,” Owens said.
It wasn’t long before the Owens family moved to Kansas City, KS. Chester graduated from Sumner in 1949, then attended junior college for a couple of years before joining the military. But that pledge always remained in the back of his mind.
His Lunch Counter Protest
Owens was home on leave in 1952 when he put on his uniform and headed to downtown KCK to have lunch at the Kresge Store since they had the best lunch in town. You can guess by the year, the lunch counter was segregated. Unlike some lunch counters, Blacks could sit at the counter, but only in a certain section.
The lunch counter was a favorite eating place for some of the city’s most powerful Blacks, but all of them complied, by sitting in their section, but not Owens. He decided to sit in the White section.
“I sat down; everyone was looking, but no one said anything,” said Owens.
Owens knew both the young waitress and Myrtle, the Black lady who ran the counter. The waitress asked Myrtle if she could serve him.
“I could tell she (Myrtle) was thinking about it,” he said.
Eventually, she gave her approval, he was served and ate. In the back of his mind, he hoped his bravery would be a turning point in KCK, but it wasn’t.
Young KC Turks
After completing his time in the military, Owens graduated from Pittsburg State College in southeast Kansas, married his sweetheart Lillie, had his first child and was back in Kansas City in 1958 ready to work, and make a difference in Kansas City.
He went to work for H.W. Sewing, a successful African-American businessman who owned Douglas Bank and a small insurance company. Owens took over the operation of the insurance company. It was a job that didn’t compensate him well, but it allowed Owens the flexibility to work on some of the changes he wanted to see happen in Kansas City.
“While KCMO had made some progress, Kansas City, Kansas, was as segregated as Birmingham, Alabama,” said Owens.
He and Lillie became active in the NAACP and with a more radical organization of “Young Turks,” the Northwest District Citizens Association. The young up-and-comers were a little “put off” by the KCK NAACP, which was led by a group of rather constrained ministers.
There were a number of incidents that enrage Owens so much that he wanted to submit his NAACP resignation, but he never quite did. He found himself at another breaking point when the organization’s executive committee was ready to yield to the pressure and back out on the planned picketing of downtown merchants for refusing to hire African-American sales personnel.
Hire Black or Else
The chapter had already been the butt of jokes across the country for refusing to join a national protest against Woolworths during the Greensboro sit-in. In addition, Owens and his committee had spent months trying to negotiate with the downtown merchants to no avail, so they felt a protest was their only remaining option.
The evening of the general membership meeting, the church was packed, but all but one member of the executive committee was on hand, with the secretary opting to send the minutes of their executive committee meeting by cab. The upset general membership voted to override the executive committee and the picketing was on.
As an additional way to pressure the merchants, Owens and his committee had timed the protest to begin in August, right ahead of the back-to-school shopping season. For several years, Owens had been in charge of scheduling individuals for protests, pickets, and sit-ins and he pretty much had it down to a science. With his flexible work schedule, he could regularly check in on protestors, and if someone failed to show, he could find someone to fill in or fill in himself.
One of the stores they were going to protest was Leaders Clothing. It was the store where all the stylish people shopped. Owens says he even had a $60 bill there, but the owner, a Jewish man, was particularly obnoxious when Owens and his committee met with him. The shop owner had a Black attorney who worked for him garnishing people’s checks when they didn’t pay their bills and the attorney came hard at Owens.
Old Uncle Tom Says
Just days before the picketing was to begin, the attorney called and threatened Owens, telling him he would personally see to it that Owens went to jail. The morning picketing started, who should show up the attorney, there to threaten Owens and the protestors with jail time.
That day, Owens was with Carl Randolph, the leader of the Young Turks,
“Carl would call you names,” Owens said. Rather upset by the situation, “He (Randolph) said, ‘this old Uncle Tom is trying to stop us,’ and pulled out a knife.”
Well, the attorney got out of there pretty quickly, but it wasn’t long before he returned pretty quickly with Clyde Townsend, who was Black. Townsend went inside and was hired. He worked there until he retired and was always one of the top salesmen.
Townsend wasn’t the only African American who obtained a job from the picketing. All of the stores eventually hired Black salesmen except for two men’s stores, who had always refused to meet with Owens.
And the List Goes On
For decades, Owens continued to be an agent for change in Kansas City, KS, alone, with the NAACP or the Young Turks. Just a few more examples from his great bevy of accomplish
•Sued and had discriminatory ads removed from The Kansas City, Kansan newspapers. Ads in the paper regularly identified Colored employee or White only, until Owens filed and won the first discrimination case ever heard before the newly formed Kansas Civil Rights Commission.
•Personally proved a point by forcing the local General Motors plant to hire their first African-American supervisor. GM kept insisting they were trying to hire someone, but no one could pass the test. Owens applied and was told he failed the test until he made it clear he was with the NAACP.
With that info in hand, they rescored his test, and surprise, he passed.
•Owens was an integral part of the successful lawsuit to desegregate the KCK Public Schools
•When the group picketed in front of the federal courthouse with signs saying “Stanley is fiddling while our children grow old,” in reference to Judge Arthur Stanley, the judge in the school desegregation lawsuit against, Stanley forced the District Attorney to look into filing charges against the 26 adult protestors, saying they violated a Federal law against picketing in or near a building housing a courtroom. The 26 were investigated by the FBI, threatened with time in jail, and in general ostracized in the community.
“We stopped getting invited to stuff. Folks didn’t even want to sit on the same pew with you in church,” Owens said.
While Owens says it was probably the toughest time of his life, the case finally came to an end when a grand jury refused to indict them.
In 1983, after being urged to by numerous people in the community, Owens ran for and became the first African American elected to serve on the KCK City Council. It was a tough competition, with Owens taking on KCK’s Democratic machine and 10 opponents to win.
Owens said he never planned to run, because he felt civil rights people and politics would never get along.
“We don’t like making deals,” said Owens of himself and other civil rights advocates. But that’s exactly what his supporters said they wanted, someone who wasn’t going to “be humming and hawing,”
No Chester Owens, still active in KCK isn’t one to hum and haw.