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

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.

Remembering Luper

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.”

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