Men kicked at them, punched and spat. They shouted racial slurs. Sprayed them with hot grease, ketchup and drinks.
The schoolchildren huddled in fear. Among them was an adult, a teacher, who appeared unafraid. Clara Luper had instructed the children to ignore the jeers and abuse. Nonviolent protest was the last tool they had left. If this didn’t work, what would?
In the fall of 1958, the nation’s civil rights movement reached a tipping point at the lunch counter of Katz Drug at 200 W Main in downtown Oklahoma City. There, Luper and 13 children, age 6 to 13, all black, participated in what would be become one of the first protests of its kind. Under the supervision of Luper, an Oklahoma City public school teacher then in her mid-30s, the children took shifts sitting at the segregated counter — refusing to end their public display of civil disobedience until their food orders were filled.
It was two days before an employee relented and served a child a hamburger. That simple act helped open the doors to lunch counters, and far more, for minorities across Oklahoma City, and eventually, the nation.
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson sat in the East Room of the White House with Martin Luther King Jr. and signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark legislation set federal standards that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
On July 3, 1964, the day after the signing, The Daily Oklahoman ran a story at the top of the front page under the headline, “Johnson Signs Right’s Bill, Pleads for Compliance.”
The newspaper quoted then Gov. Henry Bellmon praising the new law. “We will do everything in our power to see that the provisions are carried out in Oklahoma...I am very strongly in favor of the principle of equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens.”
One month earlier, Oklahoma City had adopted its own public accommodations ordinance. It forbid city businesses from refusing service or facilities to anyone based on race, religion, color, creed, ancestry or national origin.
Like the angry mob Luper faced in 1958, some white residents were reluctant to embrace racial change. Integration of formerly all-white Oklahoma City institutions like Wedgewood Village Amusement Park and the Anna Maude Cafeteria came slowly, and sometimes violently. When opposed, civil rights advocates organized protests that, along with legislation, sought to improve race relations. Today, their efforts beg a question. A half-century after the historic Civil Rights Act became law, just how far has Oklahoma come in the fight for racial equality?
In looking for an answer, Joyce Henderson, one of Luper’s former students, turns to the words of her mentor, who died in 2011 at age 88.
“Clara Luper spelled it out so many times,” said Henderson, 67, herself a retired educator living in Oklahoma City. “You can’t understand where you are or where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.”
For decades, Oklahoma race relations were defined in the public conscience by what happened in Tulsa in 1921 when hundreds of black residents were killed and thousands had their their homes burned in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riots. The violence began after a white elevator operator accused a black shoe-shiner of grabbing her arm.
As the years passed and racial violence flared across the Deep South, race relations in Oklahoma remained mostly nonviolent. Many of the Oklahoma City civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s were in response to hate crimes taking place elsewhere — like the black church bombings in Birmingham, Ala., police brutality in Selma, Ala., and the assassinations of King and Malcolm X.
“We didn’t experience what many others did in some southern states,” Henderson said. “We didn’t have the brutality.”
Bruce Fisher is one of the state’s most notable Oklahoma civil rights historians. In 2000, the retired administrative programs officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society started a five-year effort to complete the history center’s first exhibit dedicated to the state’s black American history. Last February, a refurbished exhibit was unveiled, again under Fisher’s oversight.
“By 1962, we already had a track record of desegregating lunch counters and public accommodations,” Fisher said. “It was a gradual thing. People had begun to get accustomed to the idea.”
Not all Oklahomans were so forward thinking.
Many public spaces — like bathrooms, stores, restaurants, parks and buses — remained segregated. Something as simple as a walk downtown was often marred by glares, shoves, and racial slurs.
“You can get used to something, thinking that is the way it’s supposed to be,” Henderson said. “But we knew there was something wrong with that picture. I shouldn’t have to go to a bathroom or drink out of a water fountain that says “colored.” It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something was wrong with the way it felt ... We made progress, but it’s not like we made it overnight.”
Toward the mountaintop
1951, First black firefighters hired in Oklahoma City — As a city bond election loomed, Oklahoma City Fire Department officials approached state civil rights leaders for support. The leaders agreed to back passage of the bond, but under one condition: the department had to hire blacks. The Urban League handpicked 12 men who became the department’s first minority firefighters. One, Carl Holmes, went on to become assistant fire chief and established the Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute to train black firefighters.
“These firefighters had to overcome the perception that in some way people of African descent weren’t as capable and were less intelligent,” Fisher said. “They proved themselves in a strong way.”
1958, Katz Drug lunch counter sit-in — Luper and the 13 children endured mental and physical abuse at the hands of white employees and customers for two days before the protest ended when a child was served a hamburger. The nonviolent action served as a model for civil rights protestors across the nation to use in their efforts to desegregate public accommodations.
“We should certainly be proud of Clara Luper and others who finally stood up,” said Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City Mayor. “Fortunately, there were enough people in Oklahoma City’s leadership who stood with her.”
1961, Dowell v. School Board of Oklahoma City Public Schools — Robert Dowell attended an Oklahoma City middle school that fed into Northeast High School. But because Dowell was black, he was barred from attending. So his father, Alphonso Dowell, sued Oklahoma City Public Schools and the case reached the U.S Supreme Court. By 1972, Dowell’s efforts led to the forced busing of minority students into many formerly all-white public schools.
“The fuse was lit when when Alphonso Dowell applied for his son to transfer to Northeast High School,” Fisher said. “It eventually forced Oklahoma to desegregate its entire public school system.”
1964, Oklahoma Legislature redraws district boundaries — Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, state political leaders drew legislative districts to keep black voices out of state government. When the state was forced to redraw those boundaries, black voters hit the polls and elected officials more in line with their views.
“It led to the election of African-Americans to the state Legislature,” Fisher said. “It was basically the result of a Supreme Court decision that made every state pay attention to the fact that they could no longer draw these district lines that made it statistically impossible for an African-American to get elected.”
1969, “Black Friday” of city sanitation strike — From August to November, city sanitation workers, almost all of whom were black, went on strike, citing poor working conditions, pay and treatment. On Oct. 31, “Black Friday,” strike sympathizers from all walks of life left work, school and home to march on City Hall in protest. Two Baptist pastors led the effort and later said it was one of the most frightening experiences of their lives. The strike ended when the city gave in to most of the protestors demands — but several of the original strikers were not rehired.
“Oklahoma City police were in riot gear with guns and billy clubs standing by,” Fisher said. “It’s an experience that’s never been equaled in Oklahoma City since.”
Inside the black American history exhibit at the Oklahoma Historical Society sit two 1960s-era water fountains. Hand-painted signs hang on the wall above each; one is labeled “White,” the other “Colored.”
Soon after the exhibit opened, Fisher watched as two children tried to use the non-operating fountains. That’s when he heard an innocent comment that illuminated a generational disconnect.
“Well, what color is the water supposed to be?”
The question made Fisher both proud and worried. Fifty years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the nation’s youth are growing up in a society that mostly embraces diversity. But what it took to achieve those freedoms might not be fully understood if those who fought for their rights are forgotten, Fisher said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Fisher said. “But I think it is important that they understand where we’ve come from in this period of time. My fear is that not enough people know the history and appreciate the history.”
Luper, considered a national civil rights pioneer, died June 8, 2011, after a long illness. But the lessons she instilled in Henderson haven’t faded.
Over a long career as an educator in Oklahoma City, Henderson served as an administrator at six high schools. At each stop, she’s retold the stories of Luper’s heroics in hopes of keeping her legacy alive.
“We have a responsibility to share the history,” Henderson said. “It cannot be shared with just one race of people. That was the dream of Dr. King, that all of us can live together.”
As Mayor Cornett surveys the civil rights climate in Oklahoma today, he said the struggle to provide equal opportunity for all the state’s residents will be forever ongoing.
“Civil rights never really start and end,” Cornett said. “They just continue to evolve. I think we’re still shaped today, and we’re continuing to evolve, by the actions of that era and the brave men and women who finally stood up and said, ‘We can do better.’”