Jun 17, 2011 - Civil rights leader Clara Luper has died

Luper died Wednesday night in Oklahoma City after a long illness, family members confirmed.

Luper has been the face of the Oklahoma civil rights movement since 1958, when she led a sit-in protest inside Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City, where the owners had refused to serve black customers.

Roosevelt Milton, 66, president emeritus of the NAACP's Oklahoma City and Oklahoma chapters, said she was a primary groundbreaker in the movement.

“I think that Clara was the last great civil rights icon in Oklahoma,” Milton said. “She was a very passionate and fearless person when it came to the NAACP mission.”

Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, called Luper a civil rights giant.

“Throughout her life, Ms. Luper adhered to the principle that actions speak louder than words,” Steele said. “Through her actions, she helped lead Oklahoma and the nation forward by showing courage and courtesy simultaneously, often in the face of unpleasant opposition. A road near the Capitol is now deservedly named in her honor, but perhaps the most fitting tribute to give Ms. Luper is fulfilling her vision that all Oklahomans and Americans are equal, our histories and futures intrinsically linked. She will be greatly missed, but her legacy will never be forgotten.”

In 1958, she chaperoned a group of black students to New York City. The trip eastward was through the northern states; many of the students experienced, for the first time, treatment equal to whites in public places. On their return through Southern states, they re-entered familiar, segregated territory. That brief taste of equality would help change American history.

In August 1958, a youth council group met in Luper's home and decided to force the issue at downtown eating places that refused to serve blacks. They decided to sit down and sit there until they were served.

With 13 young people, ages 6 to 13, including her two oldest children, Calvin and Marilyn, Luper directed a protest at Katz Drug on Main Street. She taught them courage and self-respect and the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. She made certain that every day their clothes were clean and ironed, so they would look confident.

The youth endured curses and threats from other customers, were covered with ketchup, hot grease and spit and were kicked and punched. Luper was with them constantly. One black child was served a hamburger at the Katz lunch counter, and the breakthrough opened Oklahoma City restaurants to blacks. Luper and the children demonstrated for better treatment for blacks at John A. Brown's luncheonette, Anna Maude Cafeteria, the Skirvin Hotel and Wedgewood Amusement Park.

Luper helped establish the Youth Council of the Oklahoma City Chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s and served as its adviser for 50 years. She is credited with directing a new type of nonviolent protest, the sit-in, and for staging the first such publicized event in the nation.

Luper taught American history for 41 years, beginning at Dunjee High School and working at other Oklahoma City schools; she retired from John Marshall in 1989.

Clara Shepard Luper was born May 3, 1923, in Okmulgee County, the middle of five children of Ezell and Isabell Shepherd. She attended Langston University, then became the first black student to enroll in the history department at the University of Oklahoma, where she earned a master's degree.

She marched with Martin Luther King Jr., whom she knew personally. In Selma, Ala., she was injured by a hit to the knee with a club. Luper was arrested 26 times during sit-ins and other nonviolent protests.

Her book, “Behold the Walls,” published in 1979, detailed her work in the civil rights movement, much of which drew national attention.

Luper made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, became the first black vice president for the Oklahoma County Teachers Association and served as a consultant and adviser on school desegregation in Oklahoma City.

In 2000, a 2.7-mile section of NE 23, where she had led young people in walks and marches many times, was renamed the Clara Luper Corridor. In 2002, Edward L. Gaylord, then president of The Oklahoma Publishing Co., initiated a scholarship fund in her name, honoring her life work of giving youngsters self-respect and hope, along with a start on their education.

In later years, Luper directed celebrations of the anniversaries of civil rights landmarks, and produced the Miss Black Oklahoma pageant, which she used as a medium to teach young women social skills. She opened the Freedom Center, the northeast Oklahoma City headquarters for NAACP youth programs and frequently served as a calming, practical influence for cooperation in race relations.

As a 16-year-old, Joyce Henderson, a soon-to-be senior at Dunjee High School, heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. present his “I Have a Dream” speech Aug. 28, 1963. With a little cash in her purse and a change of clothes in a small suitcase, Henderson boarded one of two charter buses with fellow students active in the NAACP Youth Council. One of her teachers, Clara Luper, invited her to make the trip to Washington.

Last Friday and again Monday, Henderson went by to see Luper. On Friday, “I said, ‘Mother Luper, this is Joyce.' She nodded her head; she knew who I was.”

Henderson, though not in on the initial sit-in, became involved in the movement. She said Luper's students at Dunjee would call her “Ms. Luper.”

“As we've grown older many of us began calling her Mother Luper,” she said. “She was truly that. For whatever reason she made each of us feel special, like she was our mother.”

Henderson always felt a sense of security knowing of Luper's presence in the world, she said. That made Thursday a sad day for Henderson, who retired in 2006 after 36 years as an educator and administrator.

“You've got to admit that Oklahoma and this world is a better place because of Mother Luper,” she said.

Bruce Fisher, administrative program officer for the Oklahoma History Center, was emotionally shaken Thursday when he heard the news.

Fisher played a major role in designing an exhibit at the museum featuring a replica of the Katz Drug Store lunch counter. He said Luper's efforts are an important part of Oklahoma history and important to the national civil rights movement as well.

“I wanted to make sure that we never forget that, and what an important role she played in ensuring the rights and freedoms that so many of us now take for granted,” Fisher said.

Valerie Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City, said Oklahoma has lost an innovative educator and pioneer for change.

“Clara Luper served as a beacon for civil rights and equality,” Thompson said. “Her pioneering spirit, tireless commitment to education and advocacy for equal opportunity will never be forgotten.”

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said Luper was a great Oklahoman and a great American.

“Her peaceful, resolute sit-in protest at the Katz Drug Store, where the owners at the time refused to serve African-Americans, paved the way for equal rights in Oklahoma City,” Cornett said. “If that was the extent of her contribution to Oklahoma and the nation, it would have been accomplishment enough, but that act came early on, and Clara dedicated the rest of her long and wonderful life to such basic human needs as dignity, honor and respect.”

Cornett requested that flags on city property be flown at half-staff in honor of Luper through sunset Friday.

Gov. Mary Fallin described Luper as a tremendous civil rights activist and a devoted mother.

U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, said, “The courage of Clara Luper and her children provided the turning point in Oklahoma's race relations, through their dignified and principled stand against discrimination in 1958. A lifetime later, our culture has made great strides, but we still have much work to do to remove barriers that keep Americans from achieving their fullest potential. Today's generation can thank Clara Luper for many of the freedoms they experience today.”