Clara Luper – Mother of the Civil Rights Movement (1923-2011)
(Be sure to also view the podcast related to this story, found in the "related" section at end of article)
On August 19, 1958, Dunjee High School teacher Clara Luper and 13 of her students, ages 7-15, sat in seats at the downtown Oklahoma City Katz Drug Store lunch counter. They ordered Cokes. So began the national sit-in movement of African Americans seeking equal rights as whites and other races to admittance in public establishments. And so began Luper’s pilgrimage as “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Born in 1922 in rural Okfuskee County, she grew up in a segregated Oklahoma where, she said, “It was a matter of knowing your place.” As a girl, she saw a sign outside a nearby town that read, “Negro, read and run. If you can’t read, run anyway.” “My father always believed that segregation would be over soon,” Luper recalled in a memorable 2008 interview with Emmy-winning Oklahoma journalist Dick Pryor. “My mother did not believe. I took the side of my daddy.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree from Langston University in 1944, was one of the first blacks to attain a masters degree from the University of Oklahoma, and was the first admitted to the graduate history program at OU. According to Luper, she was told by one professor there, “I have never taught a n----r and never wanted to.”
By 1958, she was a veteran teacher at Dunjee, east of Oklahoma City, and the organizer of the Oklahoma City National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council. For 18 months, she had led her young charges in studying non-violence as a way of overcoming injustices. Her key principles included: 1) defining the objective of eliminating segregation in public accommodations, 2) being honest and non-hypocritical, 3) loving their enemies, remembering the dignity of white people as humans, and 4) giving whites a way out, seeking not to humiliate them, but letting them “participate in victory when it comes.”
When Luper’s 12-year-old daughter Marilyn suggested at an NAACP Youth Council meeting that “Tonight is the time” to “go down to Katz Drug Store and sit down and drink a Coke,” her mind raced:
“I thought about my father (Ezell Shepard, a World War I veteran) who had died in 1957 in the Veteran’s Hospital and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always answer, ‘Someday will be real soon,’ as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, ‘Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let History alone be our final judge.’”
And so they went, despite opposition from other blacks. After two challenging days, spiked with rude treatment and (sometimes profane) language from whites, Luper and the children learned that Katz was desegregating lunch counters in all their stores across the Midwest.
“Keep on Believing”
Her work was far from over. She labored for many more years on behalf of blacks’ constitutional rights. This included successes such as the John A. Brown Department Store chain and the 1969 Oklahoma City black sanitation workers strike. It also included failures, including the 1966 DoeDoe Park protests in Lawton. She was arrested 26 times. Luper recalled:
“There were jail-ins, there were read-ins. While we were sitting-in, our kids were preparing to live in the real world, so they were reading. Out of that experience, we got doctors and lawyers. A lot of people have gone to the top….In fact, one of the top brain surgeons in the United States started when we were down there sitting-in. He wanted to be a doctor and I said, if you want to be a doctor, memorize all the bones in the body, the vessels, the veins, and the arteries, and that is what he did.
She also recalled one of the kids who had the experience of reading during that time was, decades later, voted the best principal in the United States.
Like all great men and women, Luper generated mixed opinions of herself. Former white students of hers at John Marshall High School told the author they felt ignored and disrespectfully treated in her classroom because of their race. More than one respected black leader contemporaneous to her shared an Oklahoma historian’s opinion that she “was very self-serving, she was a great self-promoter. A lot of people in the black community resented that; that if there were TV cameras, she would make sure she was in front of them.”
Clara Luper’s enduring legacy, though, demonstrates the power of one committed and faithful human life. What about that of her suffering, long-forgotten father, who very likely considered himself a failure?
“My daddy taught me to work hard and do my job (no matter how small) so well that no one could do it better. Then he would yell out, ‘Whatever you do, don’t quit, just keep on believing. Believe in the stars when you can’t see them. Believe in the sun when it isn’t shining. Believe in the rain during extreme periods of drought, and keep on believing in a God that you have never seen.’
“Although my daddy sleeps in yonder graves, I still believe. I believe in the Declaration of Independence. I believe in the Constitution of the United States with its Amendments. I believe in the lessons of Patriotism that I learned in Hoffman, Oklahoma. Songs like My Country Tis’ of Thee still bring tears to my eyes. I love America in spite of the Walls that I have seen. Yes! I recall the Walls of Segregation, Discrimination, and Hatred. Yes!
“I recall bitter memories, but I also have sweet memories of blacks and whites that have soothed my self-esteem with their prayers, love, concern, and support….(Being a Christian is) Expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live.”
Learn more - listed to John's special Oklahoma Gold! podcast on Clara Luper HERE.
I had Ms. Luper for Government at John Marshall High School in 1987. It was the best class I ever had. When you walked into her classroom there was a huge banner on the wall that said, ‘Welcome to Luper Land!’ She made learning fun. She set the class up like the actual government. I had to change schools mid year and she actually made me write a letter of resignation to resign from my office. —Anonymous
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.