Civil rights leader Clara Luper has died

Clara Luper, a longtime Oklahoma civil rights leader, has died. She was 88.
BY ROBERT MEDLEY AND BRYAN PAINTER rmedley@opubco.com and bpainter@opubco.com Modified: June 9, 2011 at 11:45 am •  Published: June 9, 2011

Clara Luper, a civil rights pioneer whose lunch counter sit-ins helped end discrimination in public restaurants, has died. She was 88.

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.”

Historic sit-in

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.

Legacy

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.

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