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Oklahoma City's Clara Luper helped give birth to a movement
National effort gained steam after first desegregation sit-in

By Devona Walker Modified: February 22, 2008 at 12:20 pm •  Published: February 22, 2008
Many know Clara Luper, 85, as the mother of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma. To her children, she's just Mother.

In August, it will be 50 years since Luper, her friend Portwood Williams Sr. and more than a dozen youths changed Oklahoma and the nation with the first lunch counter protest at Katz Drug. Luper was a young teacher who also worked as the adviser of the NAACP Youth Council.

"It was my daughter Marilyn's idea,” Luper said recently as she sat in her eastside home with her son Calvin.

Calvin Luper was 12 years old. His sister Marilyn was a year younger. Portwood Williams Jr. was 15. Donda West — mother of entertainer Kanye West — was barely 5. There were 11 other children — all members of the NAACP Youth Council — who arrived at Katz to protest segregation.

It was the first and longest sit-in protest of the civil rights movement. Momentum grew quickly. Two days later, the children numbered 34. Days later, there were 66 youths involved. Within weeks, that eating establishment was successfully desegregated.

For the next three years, the group expanded to numerous others throughout the state's capital city.

In Luper's den is a veritable Clara Luper Museum, all four walls loaded with awards from the NAACP and the U.S. government, statues and photos of Luper with dignitaries.

On Sunday, she'll be honored again, this time during the Miss Black Langston University Scholarship Pageant, which she founded 38 years ago.

Where it began
The events leading up to the 1958 Katz sit-in began when Luper and the youths took a trip to New York by bus.

The driver took the northern route, exposing them to cities that did not practice segregation. On the way back home, the driver took the group on the southern route. As they got nearer Oklahoma, Calvin Luper said, they started to see the old familiar colored-only signs re-emerge, and realized that something needed to be done.

"It was a realization, not something we verbalized at the time,” Calvin Luper said. "Then Marilyn suggested that she go into Katz Drug Store and order a Coca-Cola.

"We had no idea it was going to go national. All we were thinking about at the time was a hamburger and a Coca-Cola.”

Portwood Williams Jr. recalled the early days of belonging to the NAACP Youth Council. The youth would meet once a week at the Luper home.

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Black History Month
Langston University has been hosting events throughout February in celebration of Black History Month. Many festivities have revolved around Clara Luper. On Sunday, the campus honors her during the Miss Black Langston University Scholarship Pageant, which she founded 38 years ago. The pageant starts at 7 p.m. in the I.W. Young Auditorium.

Other events scheduled at the university this month:

•On Tuesday, Ebony Expressions gives students, faculty and staff a chance to engage in an "open mic” display of talent in a cafe-style setting. Starts at 7 p.m. at the atrium.

•On Thursday, the closing ceremony features Obidike Kamau, a highly regarded scholar of African-American studies. It starts at 11 a.m. in the university's I.W. Young Auditorium.


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