Remembering Clara

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Before Woolworth, there was Katz.

Katz Drug store was like many such establishments in the 1950s. Besides being a place to get your prescriptions filled, it had a lunch counter where patrons could sit down, get out of the oppressive heat of an Oklahoma summer, have a Coca-Cola, and order a sandwich. Also like many of these places across the country, the South especially, it was “whites only.” Blacks need not apply.

A common misconception today is the Civil Rights movements began and ended in the 1960s, side by side with all the other social upheaval that took place during that tumultuous decade, and that it began almost spontaneously. The reality is that the struggle had begun well before the end of slavery in 1865, continued throughout the 19th Century, and began to gather a full head of steam with the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous “separate but equal” ruling that some believed and most whites hoped settled the race question forever. The 60’s may have been the zenith of the struggle to advance civil rights, but the efforts of those years had built upon a long tradition of resistance with increasing organization and effectiveness. As early as 1939, Samuel Wilbert Tucker had staged a sit-in demanding equal access at Alexandria, Virginia’s public library, which refused to issue library cards to black citizens. This lawyer and product of Howard University had not been fully successful, but he had brought national attention to the absurdities of the “separate but equal” legal doctrine, and his tactics began to inspire others.

One of those was Clara Luper, an American history teacher at Dunjee High School in Spencer, Oklahoma, east of Oklahoma City, who herself had also been inspired by Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and its spiritual and tactical leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1957, Ms. Luper wrote and produced a play called Brother President, which had thematic elements dealing with the use of nonviolence to effect social change. This play so impressed the NAACP that she was invited to New York along with her class to perform it there for them. During this trip, the children had their first taste of what a world without segregation might be like. While in no way perfect in matters of race relations, the northern areas of the country exposed the children to being able to sit side by side with whites in restaurants and in other public facilities. On the way home, however, as they swung through the South, the reality and injustice of their situation began to set in, and before long, the inspiration these children received would bear fruit.

In the summer of 1958, at the suggestion of her daughter Marilyn who was all of eleven years old, Clara Luper took herself and twelve children, the oldest of which was only fifteen, into Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City where they all sat down at the lunch counter and ordered a Coke. They were, as they expected, refused service, but they didn’t get up. Also as they expected, white patrons and employees harassed them. The children were spat upon, had grease and bits of spoiled food thrown at them, and hot coffee “accidentally” spilled on them. But they didn’t get up. They were threatened with arrest and with bodily harm. These children heard the phrase “nigger get out” thrown at them. But, they didn’t get up. They sat there, politely, well dressed and immaculately groomed, which was something Ms. Luper insisted upon as one element of instilling in these children self-pride and a sense of dignity, and they didn’t get up.

The next day, Ms. Luper and the children returned, this time their number reaching 34 protesters. The day after that it was 66, and the day after that the Katz coroporate headquarters in Kansas City ordered all its lunch counters across the three states where they existed to desegregate. Ms. Luper and her children got their Coke.

Then they got up.

And when they did, they did not go home and congratulate themselves. They did not complain or express bitterness at the treatment they received. They moved forward. They expanded the movement to other lunch counters and other businesses in Oklahoma City, and over the next three years Ms. Luper, her students, and others who had belatedly come to believe in her and what she was accomplishing succeeded in effectively desegregating a large number of businesses and public places in the southern plains city. Inspired, Ms. Luper’s friend Mrs. Shirley Scaggins organized similar sit-ins in Tulsa while the NAACP Youth Council, with which Ms. Luper was accociated, did the same in Enid, Oklahoma.

The struggle for equality did not begin with Clara Luper, and it certainly did not end with her, but she was an important cog in the Civil Rights movements that picked up so much steam in the 1950s and made the advances of the 1960s possible, up to but not exclusive of the Civil Rights Act that many current modern Republicans have denounced as something they would not have supported. One of the children sitting there at that lunch counter at Katz was Donda West, barely five years old at the time, who would one day become the mother of Kayne West, the latter of whose remarks about Bush and his perception of black people might be better understood given this context. The fight has been long and hard and has not ended, but with people like Clara Luper to inspire and advance it, it has moved forward with a moral certitude.

Clara Luper died on June 8, 2011 in Oklahoma City. She was 88. She spent each of those years with a purpose, and she inspired more lives than most could do in ten of her lifetimes. As the Daily Oklahoman wrote upon her passing, there were few like her, and she will be missed.