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50 years ago, children helped change nation when they sat down

By Devona Walker Modified: August 19, 2008 at 9:20 pm •  Published: August 19, 2008
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In their childhood, their world was divided. Separate but equal was custom or law at schools, parks, rest rooms, water fountains and restaurants. As children, they changed those customs. As children, they helped change America.

Fifty years ago today, the Katz Drug Store sit-in was one of the first civil rights protests in the nation. Executed by children — the youngest 6 and the oldest 17 — it was arguably the boldest. It sparked other protests in Oklahoma City that lasted more than four years. The Katz sit-in was borne from the question a child asked her mother.

"I asked Momma why? Why didn't I just go in and ask for a Coca-Cola and a hamburger?” said Marilyn Luper Hildreth, now 60.

At the time she was 10. It was a hot summer day. She did not realize she was challenging generations of oppression and segregation, an entire legacy held over from slavery. Her mother knew.

Clara Luper quickly began to train the children in the disciplines of nonviolent disobedience. She tutored them not to react when they were spat upon. She coached them how to lie down and protect themselves when they were hit. She instructed them to be polite, but forceful.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Clara Luper led 13 children into Katz Drug Store. They took seats at a nearly empty lunch counter. They ordered hamburgers and Cokes, but the waitress said they would not be served. They stayed for hours. They returned the next day, then the next, when finally they were served at Katz.

The protests expanded to nearly every restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City and continued for the next four years.

In the end, they had effectively integrated every eating establishment in the city.

Marilyn Luper, 10
"We only had one store in mind. One store. One hamburger and one Coca-Cola. Later, we understood the importance of what we did back then,” said Marilyn Luper Hildreth, now a local insurance agent, mother and grandmother. "It taught us to be tough. You had to have thick skin. My momma use to always say if you don't have thick skin, you better go buy you some thick skin.”

Marilyn Luper and the other children were physically and verbally assaulted. One day, someone turned a trained monkey on them. Douglas High School was threatened with a bombing and Marilyn Luper had to be escorted off campus by the FBI. Threats were made to the Luper home.

Calvin Luper, 12
Like most older brothers, Calvin Luper knew his first responsibility was to stay out of trouble and harm's way. A close second was keeping a watchful eye over his sister. That summer, he recalls, was so hot that everyone was drenched in their own sweat. Women fanned themselves with their pocket books. Men fanned themselves with folded newspapers. The bus they rode to Katz was without air conditioning, and the dry, Oklahoma heat soaked his skin.

"Momma always put on this front as if nothing ever bothered her. As if nothing ever got her scared. But I think she did that for us, just to keep us from getting scared. I think she thought that strength would rub off on us,” Calvin Luper said.

The might not have happened if the NAACP Youth Council had not made a trip to New York. There the kids were exposed to cities that did not practice segregation. They ate in restaurants and stayed in hotels for the first time in their young lives. On their way home, the familiar signs returned, the black and white drinking faucets and separate restrooms. Coming home, they were once again eating their meals on the bus out of brown paper bags.

The children, once chattering excitedly, were quiet as they returned to Oklahoma. Their overnight bags, filled with keepsakes from their trip, now represented a life outside their grasp.

"It was a realization,” Calvin Luper said. "We had no idea it was going to go national. We just knew we had to do something.”

Portwood Williams Jr., 15
"We were too young to be afraid,” Williams said, admitting that at that age he was fearless to a fault. Slideshow: Anniversary of lunch counter sit-in

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Other sit-in participants
Other participants in the sit-in included Areda Tollivar Spinks, 11. Elmer Edwards, who was 15, currently lives in Sacramento, Calif. He retired from the California State Board of Consumer Affairs. Lynzetta Jones Carter, 15, went on to become a payroll technician with American Fidelity Assurance. She has remained active in civic organizations.

There was Gwendolyn Fuller Mukes, a lifelong educator who lives in Wichita, Kan., and Lana Pogue, 6, the youngest of the original protesters. In a rare photo of the sit-in in its early days, The Oklahoman captured a photograph of the child, barely tall enough to reach the lunch counter, at which she protested. And there was Lana's sister, Linda Pogue, and Betty Germany, who is a retired librarian from Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City.

Protester 14 was Goldie Battle Watkins, 17. She rode downtown with the others but never went inside. Her mother was fearful of her participating, and Goldie was fearful of her mother's wrath. But she worked the rest of the week answering the phone at Clara Luper's residence and handling correspondence for the protesters.

Eventually, her mother allowed her to participate. She graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received a master's degree in public health from Yale University.

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