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Clara Luper remembered as champion of equality

Oklahoman Clara Luper died Wednesday night after a lengthy illness. She was a leader in the fight for civil rights.
BY KEN RAYMOND Published: June 10, 2011

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.

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