The placard Irene Marcus wore over the shoulders of her cloth coat offered little protection from the biting wind as she circled the sidewalk in front of Kline’s department store in downtown Kansas City. Other picketers marched outside the plate glass windows of Macy’s, Jones Store, Peck’s and Emery, Bird, Thayer.
“It was so cold, but we walked anyway. One day it was only 17 degrees,” Marcus, 94, recalls.
It was mid-December 1958, and a group called the Community Committee for Social Action was striking back after the stores had refused to negotiate privately to end discrimination against black customers, who weren’t allowed to try on clothes or hats or eat in the stores’ restaurants.
The pickets were peaceful. “A lot of white people didn’t even know what it was about. They would ask, ‘You mean you can’t eat here?’” Marcus says.
The committee evolved out of the city’s scores of black social clubs. Marcus’ club, the Twin Citians, wrote letters to the other clubs to create a united front after some prominent African-American preachers declined to lead a protest against the big stores, feeling it was too soon for such a bold move.
“We thought it was a shame that we spent so much money downtown and couldn’t even eat there,” Marcus says. Organizers were inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Kansas City the year before to speak after the successful Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
Each evening picketers rushed to the stores as soon as they got off work and marched until 9 p.m. The pickets continued daily despite the frigid weather until Feb. 27, 1959, when Macy’s, Kline’s and Peck’s announced that they were ending their segregation policies. Two months later, so did Jones Store and Emery, Bird, Thayer.
Building on that momentum, in April 1962, black leaders muscled an ordinance through the city council banning discrimination in hotels and restaurants. Another ordinance extending equal rights to basically any business open to the public passed in October 1963, nine months ahead of the Civil Rights Act.
But after the national act passed, Marcus says, “everything changed. That broke open hiring and where you could buy a house, and we took advantage of it. We scattered so fast.”
Marcus and her husband banded together with four other couples and hired a contractor to build them homes in a brand-new development at 31st Street and Lister Avenue. Marcus still lives in the sprawling midcentury ranch home today.
“The workers who came out to do our roof refused to work on black people’s houses, so the contractor climbed up on the roof and did it himself,” she says.
Many of the African-American social clubs dissolved along with segregation. Access to nightclubs, movie theaters and restaurants diminished the need for in-home parties. But three clubs Marcus belongs to are still going strong.
“There were never any more political actions after the department store pickets. We were able to go back to just having fun,” she says.