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Sixty-four years ago today, Clara Luper — an Oklahoma City history teacher and NAACP Youth Council adviser — along with 13 Black youth took a stance against segregation and helped to shape the civil rights movement. She and the children from the Youth Council entered Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City and peacefully protested its whites-only opposition. All of them sat down at the lunch counter and ordered thirteen Cokes.
Luper instructed the students to remain calm and to turn their heads in disregard to the hateful action any white people did unto them. One of the students was her oldest daughter Marilyn Luper Hildreth. She was 10 years old when they took their stance.
“When people would spit on us our responsibility was to turn our heads and keep our cool,” Hildreth recounted.
The children endured derogatory names from the white customers. Some of the customers coughed in the youth and Luper’s faces as they passed by. They would purposely bump into her and the children; one of who was knocked off their seat. Throughout all of the jeering and taunts, Luper and the youth remained non-violent and quiet.
For three consecutive days, they held sit-ins demonstrating their discontent with segregation. Finally, the walls had fallen and the drug store along with 38 other locations in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa began to serve all people regardless of color, race, and creed.
That success gave Luper and the Youth Council momentum and the nation’s sit-in movement was born. Throughout the early 1960s, they continued to hold sit-ins helping to end segregation in Oklahoma’s public accommodations.
No matter what happened Luper maintained her adherence to violence. She stuck to her values as she participated in demonstrations and marches. Often, she found herself in jail in her Civil Rights struggle.
For 20 years, from 1960 to 1980, she hosted her own radio show. She chronicled her fight for Civil Rights in her autobiography, “Behold the Walls.”
In her book, she described the struggles that Black people had to endure for many years. She wrote about her and her friends, Carrie Watkins, Oneita Shepard, and Sister Baby Easley sneaking over to an all-white elementary school to peek through the window.
From a very young age, Luper had a great love for books and learning. She and her friends were amazed at the amount books they saw; it was more than they had ever seen.
Those were not the only walls that African Americans had to endure during that era. They were unable to try on clothes in certain stores. They had to purchase their shoes in the back of the store; at times they were not allowed to try them on to make sure they fit.
African Americans couldn’t enter libraries, theaters, and restaurants. Orchards were even divided when people wanted to pick pecans. Of course, it is a well-known fact they were forced to ride at the back of the bus.
In 1957, Luper wrote a play titled “Brother President: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr.” It highlighted the non-violent techniques that King Jr. used to eliminate segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
Herbert Wright, the National Youth Director of the NAACP, was so impressed by the play that he invited Luper and the cast to New York City. There they presented the play at a “Salute to Young Freedom Fighters” rally.
While in New York they were able to experience desegregated restaurants for the first time. It was on the way back when they were not allowed to dine in restaurants that the Youth Council decided they needed to take a stand for equality.
The advocate was a member of the Oklahoma Education Association, the National Education Association, and the Zeta Phi Beta. She was a recipient of 154 awards, including the Oklahoma Confederated Women’s Club Award, Zeta Phi Beta Woman of the Year Award, the National Voter Registration Award, and the Langston Alumni Award.
She passed away in Oklahoma City on June 8, 2011. Her triumphs and message will never be forgotten.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Written by Sheena Robertson
Oklahoma Historical Society: LUPER, CLARA SHEPARD (1923–2011).
NPR: How a history teacher and 13 Black students shaped the civil rights movement
Clara Luper Legacy: discovering the walls of segregation
History: Martin Luther King Jr.
Inset Images Courtesy of Pioneer Library System‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Ella‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License