Nearly 53 years ago, 13 neatly dressed young people sat at the lunch counter of the Katz Drug Store and tried to order meals.
When they were denied service, the youths — all black — didn't leave. They stayed in their seats several hours and then returned the next day, sticking around until 7 p.m.
On the third day, the drugstore surrendered. The black customers were served.
The Katz showdown marked Clara Luper's first victory as the architect of Oklahoma's sit-in movement, nonviolent protests aimed at ending discrimination. It wouldn't be her last.
The sit-ins continued at one restaurant after another for six years. By the time Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation in 1964, Luper's reputation had been secured.
She died Wednesday night at 88 after a lengthy illness.
She will be remembered as a champion of equality who never backed down.
“Clara Luper was an Oklahoma hero, a tremendous civil rights activist and a devoted mother,” Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday in a written statement. “Her leadership and commitment to equality and justice will never be forgotten.”
Taste of equality
Earlier in 1958, Luper chaperoned a group of black students on a trip to New York City. They traveled through the northern states; for the first time for many of the students, they were treated the same as whites in public places.
That taste of equality would help change American history.
In August 1958, an NAACP youth council group met in Luper's home and decided to force the issue at downtown eating places that refused to serve blacks. Black leaders had argued the case to restaurant owner for 15 months, without success. At the time, blacks could eat at only two restaurants in Oklahoma City, and even those were segregated.
The eateries, Luper told The Oklahoman then, were “treating us like trash.”
The youth group decided to go to restaurants and sit down until they were served. Katz Drug on Main Street was targeted for the first sit-in, Luper said later, “because it was multipurpose. You could buy things like shoes downstairs, get prescriptions, and there was an eating place upstairs.”
With 13 young people, including her two oldest children, Calvin and Marilyn, Luper directed the protest. She taught courage, self-respect and the nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She made certain their clothes were clean and ironed each day, so they would look confident.
The youths endured curses and threats from other customers, were covered with ketchup, hot grease and spit and were kicked and punched. They did not fight back. Luper was with them constantly.
As a result of the Katz protest, the drugstore chain ended segregation in its lunch counters in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Luper and company launched more sit-ins at John A. Brown's luncheonette, Anna Maude Cafeteria, the Skirvin Hotel and Wedgewood Amusement Park.
The success of the Katz sit-in helped encourage subsequent nonviolent protests, including highly publicized sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., as the civil rights movement took hold throughout the South, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The new medium of television conveyed the drama and importance of these protests and people began to realize the fight for equality could be waged in public, as well as the courtroom.
“Clara's leadership had an impact locally, in the statehouse and across the nation,” Blackburn said.
Shortly after the federal civil rights legislation passed in 1964, Oklahoma City approved an ordinance banning discrimination in public spaces. A state law followed in 1966.
Bruce Fisher, administrative program officer for the Oklahoma History Center, helped design an exhibit featuring a replica of the Katz lunch counter. He said he doesn't want anyone to forget the significance of what Luper accomplished.
“Young black people today,” he said, “they can't imagine not being able to go to a McDonald's and order a hamburger and fries. This lady, if not for her, they wouldn't be able to take that for granted today. ... She empowered young people to believe that they could change the world and make this a better society.”
Luper's early years
Clara Shepard Luper was born May 3, 1923, in Okfuskee County. She was the middle of five children born to Ezell and Isabell Shepard.
She attended Langston University and then became the first black student to enroll in the history department at the University of Oklahoma, where she earned a master's degree.
Luper helped establish the local NAACP's Youth Council in the 1950s and served as its adviser for 50 years.
She marched with King, whom she knew personally. She was arrested 26 times during sit-ins and other nonviolent protests.
She taught American history for 41 years, beginning at Dunjee High School and working at other Oklahoma City schools. She retired from John Marshall.
Joyce Henderson was one of Luper's students in 1963. She said as they grew older, she and other former students started referring to Luper as “Mother Luper.”
“She was truly that,” Henderson said. “For whatever reason she made each of us feel special, like she was our mother.”
Luper's 1979 book, “Behold the Walls,” detailed her life in the civil rights movement.
She made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1972, became the first black vice president of 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 led young people in walks and marches, 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.
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.
Her influence helped shape civil rights policy, but her caring touched individuals on a personal level.
“As a person that loved people, she treasured the thought of education and saw education as the solution to many problems,” Marilyn Hildreth, Luper's daughter, told The Associated Press.
“She loved children. I hear so many stories of children talking about her. It just gives me joy in my soul because she affected just so many young people. She said anybody could learn if you take time to teach them.”
Throughout her life, Luper took that time — teaching the world to face hatred with love, violence with peace, adversity with determination.
“She made Oklahoma and the United States of America a better place to live,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, “and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people.”