Chester Owens Jr. remembers bucking the laws of Jim Crow that said a black man had no right to eat where and when he wanted.
In 1952, one of those places was a restaurant at Kresge's department store on Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas.
“If I can go to Korea and die, I should be able to eat in the restaurant,” Owens recalls thinking. “So I put on my uniform and went up to S.S. Kresge and sat on a stool, the third stool ... (The waitress) looked at me and went and asked the lady who was in charge, who was African-American, 'Should I serve him?' And she said yes, and they served me.”
Now 85 years old, Owens says he was confused why more people didn’t push back as he did. He went back to Korea to serve his country and when he came home, it only amplified his view on the impact of activism.
Which is what led him to become one of the people who helped to desegregate Minnesota Avenue two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made integration the law.
As the chair of the local NAACP committee in charge of labor and industry, Owens says he didn’t have a lot of people on his side.
“They were frightened and afraid. So very few people in KCK participated,” Owens says.
Despite the small number, he and others wrote letters to the merchants along downtown Minnesota Avenue and when letters were ignored, a small group of people picketed stores. Eventually, all the stores but two clothing stores agreed to hire and serve blacks.
Owens says that in looking at the arc of local activism, he still sees that same reticence to participate. But he says it is important for people to operate in society with a strong moral principle.
“There are people who have affected the world. People like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, like Paul Robeson, who set an example,” Owens says.
But Owens believes that times make that harder.
“You don’t have a loud voice. We hear their voices out there, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t hear the loud, loud voices. They have been silenced,” Owens says.
Owens says he remembers there were several committed white allies who helped in efforts to desegregate Minnesota Avenue, but he personally doesn’t see that level of commitment today among white allies.
“I adopt a Phillips 66 slogan: It’s performance that counts,” Owens says. “I hear a lot of yak, yak, talking, but to me ninety percent of it means absolutely nothing. The same stuff that my father, grandfather probably heard and he was born a slave.”
Owens says while he believes there will never be a singular voice like that of Martin Luther King Jr., the people who speak against discrimination will not be silenced.
“My wife and I made a commitment in 1958 that we would do everything that we could, where people would not have to go through what we went through at the time.”
His wife passed away in 2017, one month shy of their 62nd wedding anniversary.
Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at Michelle@kcur.org.