Clara Luper; teacher led sit-ins to integrate lunch counters, 88

In 2009, Clara Luper watched the inauguration of Barack Obama in Oklahoma City with her daughter Marilyn Hildreth. In 2009, Clara Luper watched the inauguration of Barack Obama in Oklahoma City with her daughter Marilyn Hildreth. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
By Murray Evans and Ken Miller
Associated Press / June 10, 2011

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OKLAHOMA CITY — As she watched a television broadcast of President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Clara Luper had tears in her eyes. The Oklahoma civil rights activist knew that her struggle had reached a milestone with the election of the nation’s first black president.

“This is our day,’’ she said at the time, calling his inauguration the “fulfillment of dreams of people.’’

Ms. Luper, who was arrested 26 times during civil rights protests, died Wednesday after a lengthy illness. She was 88.

She led sit-ins that helped integrate drugstore lunch counters in four Midwestern states. While sponsor of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, the former high school teacher, radio host, and author prepared young blacks for the sit-ins.

“She took a community that had little except their voices and their feet, and she used those resources to the best of their ability for change,’’ said state Representative Mike Shelton, a family friend and member of Oklahoma’s Legislative Black Caucus.

“In some way, she has touched every life in the state of Oklahoma, whether they know it or not, because of her contributions, her persistence, her dedication to her fellow man,’’ the Oklahoma City Democrat said. “There aren’t many people you can say that about.’’

On Aug. 19, 1958, Ms. Luper, then 35, led three adult chaperones and 14 members of the youth council in a sit-in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City. The store refused to serve the group, but the protesters refused to leave, and the sit-in lasted for several days.

The store chain eventually agreed to integrate lunch counters at 38 Katz Drug Stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. During the next six years, the local NAACP chapter held sit-ins that led to desegregation of virtually all eating establishments in Oklahoma City.

“She brought the times up to her expectations,’’ said Gwendolyn Fuller Mukes, a retired school teacher in Wichita, Kan., who was among the 14 students who participated in the first sit-in.

“I remember her being loving but firm,’’ Mukes said. “She made us secure. She was a great teacher all around. She was ahead of her time.’’

Mukes said she had never seen as much hatred as she did during those sit-ins, but Ms. Luper “taught us how to look white people in the eye.’’

“You knew that you had to go through with it, because you did not want your children to grow up in the same environment,’’ Mukes said. “No one should have been treated the way we were treated.’’

Ms. Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, said her mother instilled the same fight in her own family.

“We talked about it all the time, because our whole family took part in it,’’ Hildreth said. “I think mother saw a lot of advancements [in civil rights], and she told us to always stay on the battlefield. The fight continues.’’

Portwood Williams Jr., another student who took part in the Katz sit-ins, said he could not recall any of the protesting teenagers expressing fear.

“Believe it or not, the way we felt about it was quite the contrary,’’ he said. “When you’re a teenager, you don’t know enough to be afraid. We thought it was fun.’’

James Norick, who became Oklahoma City’s mayor shortly after the sit-ins, praised Ms. Luper as a great leader who brought about change in a peaceful way, noting that “we didn’t have a big problem here like we did in some places in the South.’’

Ms. Luper was born in Okfuskee County in eastern Oklahoma and graduated from Langston University in 1944. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1951 and was the first black person admitted to the university’s graduate history program, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

She later taught history and public relations at Dunjee High School in Spencer and at John Marshall and Classen high schools in Oklahoma City before retiring in 1991. Throughout her career, she continued her civil rights work, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. during other peaceful protests.

“While her accomplishments are too many to list, her legacy is easily defined,’’ said Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City. “She opened eyes and, in turn, opened hearts and minds . . . and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people.’’

Cornett said flags on city property will be flown at half-staff through sunset today to honor Ms. Luper.

Ms. Luper hosted her own radio show for 20 years and told her story in her autobiography, “Behold the Walls.’’ She said in 2006 that she dedicated her life to spreading the message of racial and gender equality.

“My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history,’’ she said. “We cannot separate the two.’’

Oklahoma City named a street in Ms. Luper’s honor, and there is a scholarship in her name at Oklahoma City University. In 2007, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

“She had the desire and determination to promote equality in the state of Oklahoma, and in promoting equality here, she promoted equality internationally,’’ said state Representative Anastasia Pittman, Democrat of Oklahoma City, another member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous said that Ms. Luper’s civil rights efforts resonated nationally.

“Her courage, dedication, and passion for civil rights was unmatched. She will be missed,’’ Jealous said.

Ms. Luper leaves two daughters and a son. Funeral services are pending.