Clara Luper answered the “call for justice” when she led the sit-in movement in Oklahoma City and forever changed the city and nation, a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said Friday.
“She did it not for fame or fortune or ego — but because it was the right thing to do,” Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the national NAACP board of directors, said.
Brock made her remarks during Luper's funeral service at the Cox Convention Center.
Between 2,500 and 3,000 people gathered to say farewell to Luper, a beloved Oklahoma City civil rights leader and longtime educator, in a service that stretched about 3½ hours.
That Luper had endeared herself to numerous people over the course of her 88 years of life was obvious.
Every speaker, from Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel to several prominent pastors and one of her original sit-inners, had a personal story of how Luper had touched their lives.
“Clara Luper will be remembered as a civil rights icon and a true American hero,” Fallin told the crowd. Fallin hinted at Luper's well-known no-nonsense approach and forthright manner.
“I know she's in heaven organizing everything. She's probably directing those angels, ‘This is how we do things,'” Fallin said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Fallin also read a message from former President Bill Clinton at the funeral.
Clinton described the civil rights leader as someone who made this world a better and more equitable place: “Clara was a devoted teacher, a vibrant role model and a trailblazer for social justice.”
Michelle Milben, an attorney and Miss Black Oklahoma 2005, brought the crowd to its feet after she read a brief message from President Barack Obama.
Obama's message conveyed his condolences to Luper's family.
“First lady Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of your mother, Clara,” the president's message said. “I know Clara will sorely be missed by all who knew and loved her.”
Milben said she learned important life lessons from Luper.
Milben said Luper, in her straightforward manner, quickly let contestants know that the Miss Black Oklahoma pageant program had depth and meaning beyond their looks.
“She said ‘this ain't about being cute, Honey.' You had to have a vision for change.”
One of the original sit-inners, Barbara Posey Jones, said Luper had exacting standards and could be stern, but the group of NAACP Youth Council members always knew that she loved them.
“She wanted to create a different world and she was getting us ready for that,” Jones said.
Whetsel said he befriended Luper when he worked at his father's hardware store and a nearby grocery store. He named Luper an honorary Oklahoma County sheriff, saying she made history again by being the first black woman to hold the position.
in the struggle'
And one preacher, the Rev. Amos Brown, spoke so passionately that the crowd jumped to its feet several times and applauded his fiery words.
Brown, one of Luper's “freedom fighters” and a person she mentored, said history books should include Luper's historic sit-ins at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter and other Oklahoma City restaurants that refused to serve blacks.
The drugstore relented after the third day, but the sit-in movement expanded to other establishments and other states.
Brown said the service was a celebration of her life, and he encouraged those gathered to honor Luper's memory by doing their part to end social injustice.
“Celebrations don't last forever, but the (civil rights) struggles go on from one generation to the other. If you loved Clara Luper, get involved in the struggle.”
Luper's daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, spoke of a time during the fight for civil rights that she feared for her mother's life.
She said she and her brother were riding home with their mother one night when they noticed two white men following them in a car. She said Luper decided not to go home but instead dropped her children off at a friend's house.
Hildreth said as she waited for her mother to return, she worried that the men would somehow harm her, but Luper did come back and continued the freedom movement that had gained momentum.
“Not only is she my mother, but she is the mother of so many of you,” Hildreth said to theaudience.
The Rev. J.A. Reed, senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, said he was honored that Luper asked that he deliver her eulogy.
Like Brown, he encouraged attendees to honor Luper's memory by championing the causes she stood for all her life.
He said those gathered should first eradicate prejudice in their own hearts, then stand public and privately for racial reconciliation and speak out against racial injustice.
He said Luper was a godly woman, a woman who willingly served others and led by example.
“She knew it wasn't about her. It was about Him.”
Meanwhile, Luper also was feted in poetry and in song.
A choir made up of Oklahoma City area singers sang an hour before the service and then sang several selections throughout the program.
Oklahoma City drummer Jaruba played his drums as he sang an original song in tribute to Luper.
“Just when it looked like the bigots would win, a lady named Clara Luper stepped in,” Jaruba sang.