When Kansas Was Ahead of its Time

by Shawna Bethell


With the celebration, remembrance, and commentary that has come with 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, we should also remember and celebrate that legislation for equal public accommodations was introduced on the Kansas House floor as early as 1956 by a gentleman who was not yet allowed to join his fellow members of the House for a sandwich at the local diner. Curtis McClinton Sr., who served in the Kansas state legislature from 1956 to 1960 and then became their first elected African-American state senator, was determined to create equal opportunity for all men and women.

“They played me quite a bit,” Mr. McClinton told me on a cold, winter morning back in 2001. We were sitting at a long folding table in his home in Wichita, Kansas. I was a very young reporter then, and he was a gracious elder, with a touch of wry wit peppering his sharp mind. His home was unassuming, much like the man sitting across from me, but what caught my eye was the slightly yellowed copy of the Gettysburg Address respectfully displayed in an inset in the wall across the room. He caught the line of my gaze and continued.

“But finally I took my bill before them, and I began,” McClinton remembered. “Lincoln said, ‘Four score and seven years ago, our fathers set forth on this continent a new nation…’”

But before he could continue to introduce his bill that would demand equality in public places, another member asked him to yield the floor. McClinton respectfully did. Then the man went on to comment that with the state of the times being what they were, with women being raped and buildings being burned, with Martin Luther King’s activities and the fight against communism, couldn’t the House move on to “more important” business.

“When the floor was returned to me, I challenged each thing he said,” McClinton recalled. “I didn’t have any other challenges after that, and the bill passed the House.” When the same bill got to the Senate, it was delayed there as well. But eventually it passed the Senate and became a law. It was 1958, and in Kansas, at least, no business could deny service to anyone due to the color of his or her skin.

Growing up in segregated Poteau, Oklahoma, McClinton had always been interested in history and government and was an avid reader of the works of Abraham Lincoln. He was further exposed to politics and social awareness early on by his parents William and Agnes McClinton, who often took him along to political meetings.

“I remember this one meeting [my father] took me to,” said McClinton, “where this fella was making a really good speech. Then somebody said something about the Klan and the lights were cut out. I asked my dad, ‘Why’d they cut the lights out?’ and he didn’t answer me. Not to this day. Course he knew what the Klan was about, but I guess he thought I was too young for it.”

There was another significant moment that stayed in the memory of young McClinton. When he was a child his mother had taken him to Arkansas, and they had to move off the sidewalk for a man “of another race,” even though that man was unpleasantly drunk. “There was also the sitting in the back of the bus and that sort of thing,” added McClinton. “It all influenced me.”

In 1937, McClinton graduated from Langston University with degrees in both education and business. He spent time as a teacher and in the early 1940s moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he opened a grocery store. He also joined the NAACP.

By the 1950s McClinton was a successful business man and politically active; by then he’d already president of the NAACP for a time. A friend of McClinton who published a newspaper approached him about running for legislature.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll run for the legislature, but I’m gonna run to win, not as a token,’” McClinton told him. So they began organizing and puttin on rallies.

“We were at this one meeting, and a lady came up and asked, ‘Do you think that other gentleman (McClinton’s opponent) would help us with civil rights?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, why don’t you go over and ask him,’” McClinton recalled.

It turned out that the opponent did not support civil rights, and the community elected McClinton to the legislature. Thinking back, he explained that Kansas was not as “bad as other parts of the nation,” and that generally most people wanted to do right by the African-American community. But, he also knew that often those who were fighting for civil rights were ostracized by their associates, and many would not step forward to take a stand.

“It’s like the League of Women Voters deal,” he said. Then he recounted the time he and members from the League of Women Voters—all white women—went into a restaurant in Topeka, Kansas. They were told that the women would be served, however McClinton would not be.

“They didn’t know,” he said, “that we couldn’t go into those places. They lived in one section of town, and we lived in another. They never had had that experience. A lot of them really weren’t aware.” During his tenure in the Kansas state government, Curtis McClinton also worked on bills for the State Board of Education, One Man, One Vote, and Home Rule. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 99 in Wichita, Kansas, and continues to be remembered as a man of integrity and a dedicated voice for equality and education. He believed that what we teach our children will follow generationally and continually affect the moral integrity of our society.

“There are some out there who poison the minds of their children,” he said. “It just grows up. If your mother tells you something, right or wrong, it becomes part of you, and when your children come, it becomes the same thing unless something happens in your life and you really see that it’s different.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, December 1, 2014.