Martella Boyd never knew Clara Luper, but she said Thursday she owed it to the civil rights activist and longtime educator to make the 100-mile trip from the Carter County town of Tatums to the state Capitol to honor her life.
“I wanted to pay my respects to her for the wonderful things she's done,” said Boyd, 84. “She did some of the things I wished I had had the nerve to try to do. But I admire her.”
Hundreds came by Thursday to pay their respects to Luper while her body laid in repose on the first-floor rotunda of the Capitol. An Oklahoma Highway Patrol honor guard stood by her brown wooden casket; a military honor guard from the Oklahoma Army National Guard was positioned nearby.
No official count was taken of the mourners, who included family members, friends and former students — as well as many who had not met her but heard about and were grateful for her sit-ins and nonviolent protests a half century ago, aimed at ending discrimination against blacks.
At least 400 signed a guest book, placed on the other side of a corridor where a documentary on Luper was shown on a large flat-screen television.
Luper's funeral service is to begin at 11 a.m. Friday at the Cox Convention Center. Immediately after the service, the procession will head north on Broadway to NE 23 (Clara Luper Corridor), then east to Martin Luther King Avenue. The procession will then go north on Martin Luther King past the Freedom Center before proceeding to Hillcrest Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
Luper died June 8 at the age of 88. She's best known for leading a group of three adult chaperones and a group of students during a sit in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in 1958 in downtown Oklahoma City. She's also remembered as an educator who had a positive effect on thousands of children through a 41-year Oklahoma City teaching career.
“She was a great teacher,” said the Rev. James Berry, of Spencer. The pastor and bishop at Pentecost Church of Jesus Christ was a student of hers at Dunjee High School.
He graduated from high school a year before the Katz sit-in; he said he wasn't surprised to hear his former teacher would force downtown eateries to serve blacks.
“That's the kind of person she was as a teacher,” Berry said.
The Rev. W.C. Bradley, pastor of the Church of God in Christ in Spencer, said he appreciated Luper's long career as a teacher.
“Our children and grandchildren went to school under her,” said Bradley, 76. “You learned under her.”
Bradley worked for 20 years for Oklahoma City Public Schools and served as a supervisor of supplies. He said he often talked with Luper.
“Through her community life, she was an inspiration,” he said. “She was a true humanitarian.”
Lamar Clark, of Detroit, said he took part in sit-ins and marches with Luper. A senior at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, Clark, then 22, came to Oklahoma City to work at a church in Spencer; on his second day he joined Luper for a sit-in at John A. Brown's luncheonette in downtown Oklahoma City. He and Luper were among those arrested and jailed.
”We got bonded out that night,” Clark, 74, said. “We were determined to stay in. ... we were trying to make a statement.”
After that, Clark came to Oklahoma City almost weekly and helped plan different events with Luper, he said, before going to other parts in the country to take part in civil rights protests and demonstrations.
Luther Sims, of Midwest City, said he hadn't heard of Luper leading possibly the first sit-in while growing up in California. He didn't know Luper, but he listened to her radio show when he moved to Oklahoma City in 1983 to work at the now-closed General Motors assembly plant.
Jimmie Boldien, 54, of Oklahoma City, said he knew Luper and her family, and remembered as a middle-school student seeing her speak to striking Oklahoma City sanitation workers in 1969.
“The lifestyles that we now enjoy are possible because we rode on the shoulders of people like Clara Luper,” he said.
Gov. Mary Fallin and former Gov. George Nigh, who has known the Luper family for many years, arrived together – a Republican and a Democrat – and spent several minutes talking with family members.
“We're so proud of what she's done,” Nigh told Luper's three children.
In 1958, while Luper was leading her sit-ins, Nigh, then a state legislator, was running for lieutenant governor.
“I agreed with what she was doing and, I've got to say, I agreed with the way she was doing it,” Nigh said. “The reaction of the population of Oklahoma showed that they thought they were ready for it, that we should be doing it. Oklahoma, although segregated, was recognized for the peaceful integration and that's because people realized what Clara was saying was right.
“Her peaceful demonstrations were wonderful and recognized in the nation,” said Nigh, a former history teacher.