Her name does not resonate like that of Rosa Parks, and she did not garner the kind of national attention that a group of black students did when they took seats at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960. But Clara Luper was a seminal figure in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
Clara Shepard Luper was born in 1923 in rural Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. Her father, Ezell Shepard, was a World War I veteran and laborer. Her mother, Isabell Shepard, worked as a laundress. Young Clara was raised in Hoffman, Oklahoma. She went to high school in the all-black town of Grayson, Oklahoma, and attended college at Langston University where, in 1944, she received a B.A. in mathematics with a minor in history. In 1950, Luper was one of the groups of black students who integrated the University of Oklahoma. She received an M.A. in History Education from the university in 1951.
In 1957, as Luper worked as a history teacher at Dunjee High School east of Oklahoma City, she became the advisor for the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council. At this time she was deeply influenced by the success of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. With the Youth Council, she wrote and staged a play entitled Brother President about King’s philosophy of nonviolence. In 1958, she was invited to bring the Oklahoma City Youth Council to perform Brother President for the NAACP in New York City.
The trip to and from New York was a formative experience for Youth Council members. On their return to Oklahoma the Youth Council voted to initiate a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to end segregation in Oklahoma City.
From 1958 to 1964 Luper mentored the members of the NAACP Youth Council during its campaign to end the segregation of public accommodations through sit-ins, protests, and boycotts.
On Tuesday afternoon, August 19, 1958, Luper and a group of Youth Council members entered the segregated Katz drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City. They took seats, and asked to be served. Two days later, Katz corporate management in Kansas City desegregated its lunch counters in three states.
This successful August, 1958 sit-in led by Luper, her eight-year old daughter who suggested the action, and the rest of the children in the NAACP Youth Council, at the Katz Drug Store occurred a year and a half before the February 1, 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins.
From 1958 to 1964 Clara Luper was a major leader of the fight to end segregation in Oklahoma. She led the campaigns to gain equal banking rights, employment opportunities, open housing, and voting rights. Along with the NAACP Youth Council, she personally integrated hundreds of restaurants, cafes, theaters, hotels, and churches, including such notable Oklahoma City establishments as the Split-T drive-in and the Skirvin Hotel. She served on Governor J. Howard Edmondson’s Committee on Human Relations. 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 arrested 26 times at civil rights protests. Now a street is named after her in Oklahoma City, and flags flew at half-staff in her honor.
National Civil Rights Activism
Luper was a prominent figure in the national civil rights movement. She was active in the NAACP, and attended the association’s annual conference every year with the Oklahoma City Youth Council. She took part in the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. She also took part in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches where she received a deep cut in her leg on “Bloody Sunday” when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police with tear gas and billy clubs. 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.
After 1964 Luper remained an important community figure as an activist, educator, and stalwart NAACP supporter. In these years, she expanded the range of her concerns to include advocacy for educational, economic, and political equality. In 1968, she was one of a handful of African American teachers hired to teach at Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School as part of the highly controversial court ordered school desegregation plan implemented that year. She was later reassigned to John Marshall High School (Oklahoma) where she continued to teach history and media studies.
In 1972 Clara Luper ran unsuccessfully for election to the United States Senate. When asked by the press if she, a black woman, could represent white people, she responded: “Of course, I can represent white people, black people, red people, yellow people, brown people, and polka dot people. You see, I have lived long enough to know that people are people.”
Luper taught American history for 41 years, beginning at Dunjee High School and working at other Oklahoma City schools; she retired from John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City in 1989.
The Clara Luper Corridor, a multi-million dollar two mile streetscape project connecting the Oklahoma State Capitol complex with the historically African-American area of Northeast Oklahoma City, began construction in 2005. It was named to commemorate her civil rights legacy.
Luper received hundreds of awards, and was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Afro-American Hall of Fame, among others.
The Clara Luper Scholarship, a full scholarship given by Oklahoma City University, has been awarded to 30-45 students every year. The scholarship was geared towards students who were minorities, came from underserved high schools, or came from households with lower income.
As she watched a television broadcast of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Clara Luper had tears in her eyes. The Oklahoma civil rights icon knew that her and other activists’ struggle had reached a milestone with the election of the nation’s first black president.
“This is our day,” she said at the time, calling his inauguration the “fulfillment of dreams of people.”
“She took a community that had little except their voices and their feet, and she used those resources to the best of their ability for change,” said state Rep. Mike Shelton, a family friend and member of Oklahoma’s Legislative Black Caucus.
“In some way, she has touched every life in the state of Oklahoma, whether they know it or not, because of her contributions, her persistence, her dedication to her fellow man,” the Oklahoma City Democrat said. “There aren’t many people you can say that about.”
Mukes said that during those sit-ins, she’d never seen so much hatred, but Luper was their advocate and staunchest supporter and “taught us how to look white people in the eye.”
“You knew that you had to go through with it because you did not want your children to grow up in the same environment. No one should have been treated the way we were treated,” Mukes said.
Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, said her mother instilled the same fight in her own family.
“We talked about it all the time, because our whole family took part in it,” said Hildreth. “I think mother saw a lot of advancements (in civil rights) and she told us to always stay on the battlefield. The fight continues.”
Portwood Williams Jr., another student who took part in the Katz sit-ins, said he couldn’t recall any of the protesting teenagers expressing fear.
“Believe it or not, the way we felt about it was quite the contrary.
“While her accomplishments are too many to list, her legacy is easily defined,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said. “She opened eyes and, in turn, opened hearts and minds … and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people.”
Luper hosted her own radio show for 20 years and told her story in her autobiography, “Behold the Walls.” She said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press that she dedicated her life to spreading the message of racial and gender equality.
“My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history. We cannot separate the two,” she said.
Oklahoma City named a street in Luper’s honor and there is a scholarship in her name at Oklahoma City University. In 2007, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and in 2009, she received the National Education Association’s Rosa Parks Memorial Award.
“She had the desire and determination to promote equality in the state of Oklahoma, and in promoting equality here, she promoted equality internationally,” said state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, another member of the Legislative Black Caucus.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous expressed similar praise, saying Luper’s civil rights efforts resonated nationally.
“Clara Luper was an inspiration to us all,” Jealous said. “Her courage, dedication and passion for civil rights was unmatched. She will be missed.”
Luper is survived by two daughters and a son.