Black History Month — Clara Luper

There are so many stories of people who were heroes in their own way throughout the civil rights movement and beyond that I could write a story a day for the entire year and not run out.  Today’s efforts by some to whitewash history, to remove some of the most significant names from the history books is appalling.  I cannot do much, but throughout February, as often as I can I plan to highlight the contribution throughout our nation’s history of our Black brothers and sisters.  Some will be well known to you, others, like the one I am highlighting today, you probably never heard of.  It is important to not let these people fade into oblivion, to remember them, to say their names!

She said, “I want you to believe in the sun when the sun didn’t shine and to believe in the rain when the rain didn’t fall.”

Not too many people know her name, not even in her home state.

She has been referred to as a “hidden legend.”

She was one of the most beloved teachers in her community, but when she took a group of her students to a local lunch counter, she and her students were spit at, cursed, and threatened.

She said she did it because she wanted the children to know that there was a life in which they were accepted.

When she was a child, she remembered when her brother got sick, and the local hospital wouldn’t accept him or treat him because of the color of his skin.

She also remembered her father telling her and her siblings that “someday” he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, “Someday will be real soon,” as tears ran down his cheeks.

She remembered her brother and her father’s words when she heard some of her students and her own daughter asking each other why they weren’t allowed to go to a lunch counter, sit down, and eat a hamburger and drink a soda.

“That’s when she decided to bring her students to a local lunch counter in Oklahoma City, where they took seats at the counter and asked for Coca-Colas,” according to the New York Times. “Denied service, they refused to leave until closing time. They returned on Saturday mornings for several weeks.”

Her name was Clara Luper.

“Her name does not resonate like that of Rosa Parks, and she did not garner the kind of national attention that other sit-ins did . . . But Clara Luper was a seminal figure in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement,” according to writer Dennis Hevesi of the New York Times.

Other sit-ins received more press coverage, such as the Greensboro sit-ins Feb. 1, 1960, at Woolworth in North Carolina, but the sit-in Luper organized and led happened 17 months earlier.

“On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper and 13 kids [ages 6 to 17] walked into Katz Drug Store, sat down on stools lining the counter and asked to be served,” according to the OU Daily. “They waited quietly until closing time, even after a white woman sat on the lap of a black girl and four white youths came in waving Confederate flags.”

Luper’s daughter, [11-years-old at that time] Marilyn Luper Hildreth, remembers, “When people would spit on us our responsibility was to turn our heads and keep our cool.”

“Eventually the Katz chain agreed to integrate lunch counters at its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa,” according to the New York Times. “Over the next six years, the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter held sit-ins that led to the desegregation of almost every eating establishment in Oklahoma City.”

Her “success ignited a series of sit-ins and marches across Oklahoma, and she quickly became a notable civil rights activist.”

Ms. Luper’s activism extended beyond the sit-ins. A week after that first protest, 17 white churches in Oklahoma City let members of her youth group attend services. “At another church, a pastor asked two youngsters to leave,” The Associated Press reported at the time. “‘God did not intend Negroes and whites to worship together,’ he told them.”

Ms. Luper was a history teacher at Dunjee High School in 1957 when she agreed to become adviser to the Oklahoma City N.A.A.C.P.’s youth council, according to the Times. The youngsters asked what they could do to help the movement.

“The Oklahoma sit-ins received scant national attention. But civil rights activists across the country noticed Mrs. Luper’s success, and sit-ins became a common tool for forcing peaceful change.”

Seventeen months later, the Greensboro Four took their seats at the Woolworth lunch counter and made history.

“The actions that Ms. Luper and those youngsters took at the Katz Drug Store inspired the rank and file of the N.A.A.C.P. and activists on college campuses across the country,” said Roslyn M. Brock, the group’s national chairwoman.

Luper, who died in 2011 at 88, continued to be active in the NAACP. She took part in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington where he delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police attacked the 600 activists and ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the U.S. Senate in 1972, according to the OU Daily..

She was arrested 27 times for standing up for the children.

Her efforts helped lead to the city council’s 1964 passage of an ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination at stores, swimming pools and other public accommodations.

Those in her state who know of her refer to her as the mother of Oklahoma’s civil rights movement.

“She advocated for human rights and racial equality until her death . . . but her contributions to the civil rights movement have rarely been credited or acknowledged,” according to Destinee Adams of NPR.

“As Rosa Parks was to the integration of buses, Clara Luper was to the sit-in movement,” UCLA psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West, who co-authored a 1966 study of the psychology of children who had participated in sit-ins, wrote in the New York Times in 1990. “Regrettably, her leadership never received the recognition it deserved.”

“Her late-night demanding phone calls, emphasis on excellence and love of young people, made her a beloved educator and community figure who was responsible not only for her civil rights movement contributions, but also for the achievements of a generation she challenged and inspired to greatness,” according to OU Daily.

According to NPR, “She would say all the time, ‘I want you to believe in the sun when the sun didn’t shine and to believe in the rain when the rain didn’t fall and to believe in the God that we’ve never seen,'” she said. “That’s the way that she would want to be remembered.”

“I knew I was right,” she told the Daily Oklahoman years later. “Somewhere I read, in the 14th Amendment, that I was a citizen and I had rights, and I had the right to eat.”

This weekend, Oklahoma City remembers Luper for her work to end segregation. The celebration marks 64 years since Clara Luper and her 13 students sat in at Katz Diner.

“Her name is a staple,” artist and activist Jabee Williams said. “But there are still some people here who have never heard of her. A lot of these people are still here today and they can still tell those stories and we need to hear those stories and hear firsthand. We also have 13 students who will represent that first 13, and it’s really impactful and it gets kind of emotional. It’s powerful.”

Photo and story courtesy of the Jon S. Randall Peace Page

17 thoughts on “Black History Month — Clara Luper

  1. Thanks Jill. We cannot go back to “someday real soon,” as too many have fought long battles. Whether it is in Florida or Mississippi or some other state, we must never forget these lessons, even if some white washers want us to. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right about that, my friend. Too many have fought long battles, and even their children and grandchildren carry the battle scars. The current push to whitewash our history is abhorrent and must be met head on with stories of those who have fought throughout the centuries for equality, for truth, for justice, for … life.


  2. I guess it was more newsworthy for men to sit-in at Woolworth’s (an international chain) than it was for children and a woman to sit-in at a Katz Drug Store.
    Thank you for her story, and wchievements.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure it was the fact that they were males, so much as the timing. By the time they did it, the sit-ins were becoming well-known, and I think media coverage had been pre-arranged, too.


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