Oklahoma Sit-Ins: A Conversation with Clara Luper
In 1957, high school history teacher Clara Luper was given the opportunity to escape segregated Oklahoma by spending a few days in New York presenting "Brother President," a play she wrote about Martin Luther King. Luper and the group of students she brought with her were able to go about their day like everyone else and order sodas from non-segregated lunch counters. As their bus journeyed back through the Jim Crow South, Luper vowed to take on segregation and explained how she was going to do it in her book, Behold the Walls:
"I though about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veterans' Hospital and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, "Someday will be real soon," as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, "Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let History alone be our final judge."
Shortly thereafter, Luper and 12 members of the NAACP Youth Council, ages six to 17, walked into the Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered 13 Coca-Colas. A typical response from Luper's fellow white customers was, "The nerve of the niggers trying to eat in our places. Who does Clara Luper think she is? She is nothing but a damned fool, the black thing." Thanks to patience and persistence, Katz, a major drug store, eventually desegregated the lunch counters in all of its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.
That action led to similar sit-ins in Oklahoma City and across the South. Luper eventually became known as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Luper is well-known in Oklahoma, but isn't a household name nationwide. Today 82-year-old Luper speaks about her work to groups across the country and is involved with the NAACP, Miss Black Oklahoma and her church. I recently spoke with Clara at her home in Oklahoma City.
Tell me about the work you've been involved with in the past, specifically the sit-ins.
Well, first off, I'm black. I've known segregation as one of the worst experiences of a person's life. I was born in a segregated area. I went to a segregated school where we'd be reading sometimes on page four and the next page would be ten. I have had the experience of going to the back of the bus, not being able to go to libraries, public accommodations and what have you. I've always hated segregation with a passion. That's why I've been associated with the NAACP.
Did you immediately recognize that segregation was wrong?
I was always taught that segregation was wrong. I came from a family that understood the scars of segregation and they knew it was wrong, but doing something about it was a different story because Oklahoma was primarily at its infancy a Democratic State. In writing the Constitution, the first laws that were passed were segregation laws, so my parents had lived with it. My dad was a veteran of World War I and he believed what Woodrow Wilson said: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. My mother was from Texas and she saw a black person burned in Paris, Texas and she was afraid that would happen to anyone who spoke out against segregation. When I would say, why do we have to go to the back of the bus? My mother would say, shut up; my dad would say, someday you'll be able to ride anywhere on the bus. He had a lot of faith in what would happen and what would change in Oklahoma.
When it comes to segregation and racism, most people think of Mississippi and Alabama. What would you say to people who don't know that much about the history of Oklahoma, especially as it pertains to racism and segregation?
Well, they haven't studied Oklahoma history because during the debate on the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, one Senator stated that Oklahoma had the worst segregation laws in the United States, which is true. Our laws were on the books and they stated very clearly that we should be separated. It was written by Bill Murray who hated Catholics, Jews and Blacks. And he wrote it so that all laws would be segregation laws. People just don't know because we are a young state and people have not paid attention to us like they have in other states. We've had lynchings in this state. We've had burnings. In fact, my building was bombed. We've had a lot of things. But one difference between Oklahoma and the other states is that we had a nonviolent movement here.
Tell me about that movement.
In 1957, I wrote as part of a black history program, a play that I call, "Brother President," which was a story about Martin Luther King. I had met Martin Luther King through the NAACP when he received an award in New York City. I'm Baptist and I was so proud to hear a Baptist minister talk about social changes. I wrote this play and for the first time in my life, I took a group of young people to New York City because the NAACP had asked for voices from the South and we went there. Most of my kids had never had the opportunity to go in a restaurant and order Cokes and what have you. We lived at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City and the kids really enjoyed it, but on the way back, we came back through segregated Washington DC, which was another experience. Then I thought that I cannot leave this area until I take my kids to Arlington Cemetery. That's a heartwarming experience because you just don't realize how many people have died perpetuating what we call democracy. So a 14-year-old girl standing in the Arlington Cemetery says to me: what can we do? All of these people have died for freedom. What can we do? We came back through the segregated South where we couldn't eat in restaurants.
To make a long story short, when we came back to Oklahoma City, the NAACP youth council met and wanted to open public accommodations to all and we thought it'd be easy because we are known as the Bible center of America. We thought all we had to do was make our wishes known. I had a friend, who happened to be white, who was so excited about the project. We decided to go to the restaurants together and when we did that, all hell broke out because they would say to the white lady, come in, but Clara Luper, you can't come in. We did that for seventeen long months and after seventeen months, the kids made reports and my daughter Marilyn said, let's go downtown and wait. And we selected the stores where most blacks traded. So we decided that night to go to Katz Drug Store. Katz Drug Store not only had drugs, it had a basement with tennis shoes and shirts and what have you. So we went in, 13 of us, and took seats. People that had known us for years began to curse us. They called the police. Policemen came from all directions, but we were just sitting at the counter. We were not arrested. That was in 1958 and we are getting ready to celebrate the 48th anniversary of the beginning of the sit-in movement. We celebrate every year. That's how we got started.
When did the dialogue begin to shift? In the beginning, people were outraged.
People were outraged. We had to sit-in from 1958 to 1964, so they were outraged because we were able to uncover the prejudice that had been quilted into the intellectual fabrics of the whites in this state.
Did you have any white champions? Did anyone have a change of heart and say, you're right, segregation is wrong.
I don't think they had a change of heart. There were a lot of whites that participated in the movement. I told the whites, when you participate in this movement, you're going to suffer discrimination and they found that. A priest at a local Catholic Church here was abused and finally he was run out town. Doctor Yates, who was a young Presbyterian minister who participated, was run out. There were a lot of white people that wanted to see the change. See, white people had a fear in Oklahoma. If they would come out and support us, they would be isolated from their friends and neighbors. There were many business owners that felt if they would come out and support us, they would lose their white customers. There were jail-ins. I went to jail 26 times. There were read-ins. While we were sitting-in, our kids were preparing to live in the real world, so they were reading. Out of that experience, we got doctors and lawyers. A lot of people have gone to the top. In fact, one of the top brain surgeons in the United States started when we were down there sitting-in. He wanted to be a doctor and I said, if you want to be a doctor, memorize all the bones in the body, the vessels, the veins and the arteries and that is what he did. They were very, very successful. In fact, this year, during the sit-in freedom fiesta celebration, one of the young ladies who was voted the best principal in the United States, who has a master's degree, was our guest speaker. She was one of the kids who had the experience of reading during that time.
Are most of the people involved in the sit-in alive today?
Yes, most of them are alive.
And you're in contact with them?
Yes, they're all over the country.
What's the climate like today? I notice that when I go to churches, they're either all-white or all-black.
The climate today in Oklahoma has changed. The churches are still the most segregated part of Oklahoma. Our school system has changed, the employment picture has changed on the lower level, but we are still the last ones hired and the first ones fired. I think it's a climate of understanding and credit must not only be given to the NAACP. It must be given to the men that fought in World War II and the Korean War and Vietnam because these guys came back with a different attitude. Things have changed for the better because I know I couldn't even go downtown and now I'm always getting invitations. I got an opportunity not only to work in black schools, but in white schools. I remember quite vividly one white lady who didn't want her son in my class and had the audacity to come to my classroom and call for her son. At that time, I had to show her that I was the boss of that classroom, so I went out and said, show me some identification because you might be somebody trying to kidnap one of my students. She was nervous and finally pulled out a driver's license. I explained to her, you've got to understand that I'm responsible for this classroom and her son, who was a junior at that time, was so embarrassed. When I went in and got him, he was angry with his mother. They had quite a fuss and he told his mother, I'm staying in this class because I'm learning something. But to bring it around, this young man is now president of a company and last year, he called me and asked me to go to lunch. He didn't tell me his mother was going to be present. So I went to lunch with him and he had his mother apologize to me. He said, this is the lady that changed my life. I came from low-income people. I couldn't understand kids who had everything, but wouldn't study and wouldn't work. I really produced some great students because of that. I called them my diamonds and explained, you gotta dig for a diamond. You gotta polish it.
How did the apology make you feel?
In the first place, I have never had the seed of hatred in me. And the white folks that spit on me and cursed me, they were ignorant people. They didn't know my dreams and my aspirations. They didn't know my understanding of America and what it was all about, so I felt sorry for them. I remember one time, I was havin' some fun and I asked one of the segregationists to describe a black person to me. He couldn't do it because we come in so many different colors. When I ran for the United States Senate and I was down in what is known as Little Dixie, one of the leaders of the community asked me how I felt about interracial marriage. I really hated that he asked me that because I know so many marriages have failed whether they're white and white or black and black. I told him, I have never seen an elephant having intercourse with an ant and therefore, I believe that anything that God did not want to mate, he made biologically impossible. He didn't like that, but nobody asked me about interracial marriage again. I think people are hung up on the wrong thing.
Like gay marriage?
Yeah, I have nothin' to do with anybody wanting to marry anybody. That's their business.
The type of activism that you were involved with doesn't happen today. There are protests, but a lot of people say it's difficult to make an impact.
We were protesting against the laws. Another way to go about it is through education. That's what we've got to do. The textbooks must be changed. For example, the Oklahoma history books, before 1980, hardly had anything about women and women were the backbone of the state. The more you know about women, the more you know about blacks, the more you know about Indians, the better off you are. History books have been written by white men.
But in terms of activism and actions, people from all over the country took to the streets during the Republican National Convention, hundreds of thousands protested the war, people sign petitions, people volunteered during the election, people call their Senators, but many on the left feel like their actions don't make a difference.
The problem is with the young people between the ages of 18 and 45. Those people have not gotten out and registered to vote. They don't think what happens in Washington affects them. You know I'm anti-war because I see no need to go somewhere to put democracy down somebody else's throat when we don't have it ourselves. Bush has a lot of personality that will make people say ok, ok, ok without thinking. That's what is happening. I'm not tied to any political party. I have friends who are Republicans, Independents and Democrats. I'm only interested in people who believe everybody should have basic rights.
What is your opinion of the Bush administration and what they've done over the past four years?
What have they done over the past four years? I know one thing: 1700 of our bright young Americans have died for a cause that I don't understand. Naturally, I'm speaking from a mother's standpoint. I would like to see a war where old men have to go and fight. That would be the kind of war I would like to see. Bush and his group should go over there and send our boys home.
Democrats tend to ignore the so-called "red states" like Oklahoma saying it's not worth spending money here. What do you think about that?
I think it's a mistake. In politics, all states are important.
Why did John Kerry fail to win one county here?
John Kerry didn't come to Oklahoma and connect with the right people. He was not able to get his message out. I voted for him and I think he got most of his votes from the east side of Oklahoma City. The east side is predominantly black.
What can politicians do to get more blacks to vote?
We've got to get them registered and to the polls. A lot of them are still afraid to vote.
What advice would you give to the Democratic party?
I think they should make use of the black media. I'm on the radio. I work for KTLV. We couldn't get Kerry's group to spend any money in the black community. We have black newspapers and black radio programs. They've got to become involved because the day is over when you can have a bbq and ask people to come out and vote.
They're really struggling with issues like gay marriage and abortion because the Republicans have done such a good job of turning those into wedge issues.
Those aren't our issues. I don't know any black people who are concerned with gay marriages and abortions. Those are somebody else's issues. We're concerned with hospital prices, medicine, jobs, social security, education and all of that.
It's interesting you say that because when we go to black churches, people say they're against gay marriage and abortion, but say they shouldn't be political issues, whereas when we interview people at white churches, those two issues are at the top of the list. They say they like Bush because he's against gay marriage and abortion.
That's a poor reason. I don't have a right to tell you whom you should marry. I don't have a right to take that decision away from you. I was at one black church and the preacher was explaining that those aren't our issues. Those are Bush's issues. He asked preachers, how many of you have married a gay couple? And not one of them had. This is not an important issue in the black community, according to the blacks I've talked to and God knows I've talked to a lot of them. Unless we wake up, many church people will wake up without health care and social security and other things. Then there will be a crisis in the churches. The Democrats should hit it head on.
What does being Christian mean to you?
Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live. That has really paid off for me because today I am so fortunate in that I have 90 students and I'm paying their room and board at Oklahoma City University. A man put up a million dollars in my name and another organization put up $300,000. This means so much to me because when I went to college, my mother had to move to the servant's quarters so I could go to school.
Would you mind sharing a few more stories from your past that stand out?
I had the opportunity to debate a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and that was quite interesting. I could hardly wait because I know the key to winning a debate is to make a person angry. At the beginning of our debate, I said, I am so happy to be here to debate this issue with my brother. He got mad and he told me he was not my brother. I apologized and said, you've got to remember sir, I'm a Christian and I've been told that all men are brothers. (laughs) That made him so mad. In place of debating the issue, he started saying that he was not my brother. I said, sir, I'm apologizing to you. That's what I've been told: God our father, man our brother, but maybe I have to go back and get my Bible and reread it.
How did the rest of the debate go?
I won it. I won. (laughs) I have another story. We walked to Lawton trying to integrate an amusement park. The man who owned it had me arrested because it was a swimming park and he didn't want blacks to swim. He said he didn't want me swimming in his pool and I looked at him and didn't say anything because I couldn't swim. (laughs)
What eventually happened?
We finally got it opened. The whites weren't always like that. We had one white man, the owner of a park, put us in jail and his dad came and got us out. (laughs) You can never tell. In studying history, only 25 percent of people in the south had anything to do with slavery. You want to make sure you're picking out the right ones. But who can tell who is the right one? That's why you have to love everybody.