discovering the walls of segregation

"I wanted to read the books. I wanted to explore new ideas, but the walls separated us and we were caught behind the walls."

There were other walls Clara Luper and African Americans had to endure during this era. They couldn't try on clothes in some stores, shoes were purchased at the back of the store, and there were times they weren't even allowed to try them on. African Americans couldn't enter theaters, restaurants, and libraries. The orchards were even divided when people wanted to pick pecans. Then, of course, there was the riding at the back of the bus.

Clara Luper repeatedly ran into walls of segregation. After she received her bachelor's degree from Langston University, she went on to the University of Oklahoma where she hit other walls - separate restrooms, separate sections in the cafeteria, and separation in classes.

"In one class a professor told me he had never taught an (n-word)and had never wanted to. I moved that wall by staying in his class and working so hard that at the end of the school term, he confessed his sins."

These are just some of the walls Clara Luper discovered before she even finished her educational career.

2012.201.B0366B.0551 Oklahoma Publishing Co. Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. June 22, 1963. 

Clara Mae Shepard Luper fought for equality in the state she loved. 

In her book, Beyond the Walls, she writes about a time when she was in elementary school in Hoffman, Oklahoma. From a young age, she had a love for books and a love for learning.

One day, she and her friends, Sister Baby Easley, Carrie Watkins, and Oneita Shepard, snuck over to the all-white elementary school and peeked through the window. To their amazement, there were more books than they had ever seen before.

BROTHER PRESIDENT AND the spark of the movement

Clara Luper wrote a play in 1957 titled Brother President, the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent techniques that he used to eliminate segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.

 

The play was seen by Herbert Wright, the National Youth Director of the NAACP. He was so impressed that he invited Clara and the main cast of the play to New York City. They presented it at a "Salute to Young Freedom Fighters" rally.

The trip to New York was a memorable one. The group took the northern route on the way there. They were able to experience desegregated restaurants for the first time. The trip back home was travelled by the southern route, stopping in Washington, D.C. along the way. Taking this route, they found that they were unable to eat in restaurants. It was the return trip that sparked the Youth Council to begin the sit-in movement.

The movie adaptation by Clara Luper of a play Luper wrote entitled "Brother President: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr." According to an article in the Oklahoman, the play was written and performed by Luper's social studies students at John Marshall High school in January of 1984. Marshall's History Department head urged her to make a movie script out of it because the play was selling out every night. The film is divided up into 4 reels.

Click here to view part 2. Click here to view part 3. Click here to view part 4

(F2009.100.2.001) Ned Hockman Collection. Oklahoma Historical Society. 

CHALLENGING THE WALLS

August 19, 1958: Clara Luper with thirteen children from the Youth Council went down to Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. This particular drug store would not serve Blacks at the lunch counter. Clara and the children walked in, sat down at the counter, and ordered thirteen Cokes. 

They were refused service.

The white customers called them derogatory names. Some customers coughed in Clara's face and the faces of the children as they passed. The white customers would purposefully bump into Clara and the children. One of the children was knocked off of a seat. 

Through all of the taunts and jeering, Clara and the children remained quiet and non-violent

Presented by the Oklahoma Historical Society, this documentary shares the history of sit-ins in Oklahoma City during the Civil Rights Movement. Through historic images and new interviews with sit-in participants, producers Joyce Jackson and Bruce Fisher tell the powerful story of this movement. Interviews include Marilyn Luper Hildreth, Joyce Henderson, Richard Brown, Betty Germany, Ayanna Najuma, Sharon Fisher, Reverend John Reed Jr., Claudette Goss, Samuel Craig, Joyce Jackson, Bill Clifford, James Woods Jr., Booker T. Roberts Jr., Lois Mosley, and Eugene Jones III.

breaking down the walls

After just a few days, the walls had fallen at Katz in Oklahoma City as well as its 38 other locations in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa. They would serve all people regardless of race, creed, or color.

The success of Katz gave Clara and the Youth Council momentum. Some restaurants chose to integrate easily while others chose to keep Blacks out. The difficult locations were Anna Maude's Cafeteria, The Skirvin Hotel, The Pink Kitchen, and The Split T. The one location that took nearly three years to desegregate was John A. Brown's Luncheonette. It took Clara Luper meeting with Mrs. John A. Brown and her lawyers to break down the walls of segregation. 

marching to lawton, ok

In 1966, Lawton was referred to as a twentieth-century town with seventeenth-century ideas. 

"It seemed inconsistent with Democracy that Fort Sill's soldiers had a long history of defending Democracy all over the world and could not defend Democracy beyond Fort Sill's gates. Black and white soldiers that had fought together could not swim together at Doe Doe Amusement Park."

 

Over one hundred Black people made their way down to Doe Doe Amusement Park. Ben Hutchins, Sr., the owner, shouted for the officers. He demanded the trespassers be arrested. The group actually was arrested a few times. 

Seeing as how protesting was not going to sway Ben Hutchins, Sr., the group decided to march to Lawton, Oklahoma from Oklahoma City on July 4, 1966, as a testament to Thomas Jefferson who wrote the immortal words,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all 
men are created equal and are endowed by their
creator with certain inalienable rights such as
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Willie J. Cole was killed in Vietnam in the first week of June 1966. The march to Lawton was dedicated to the memory of the former NAACP Youth Council worker.  He was a 23-year-old from Oklahoma City and had graduated from Douglass High School. 

Everyone met at Oklahoma's state capitol grounds, began singing "From Clouds to Rainbows," and 88 people began the march to Lawton. Even though it began raining that evening, the group (even the young children) stayed strong and made it to a Mobil Service Station. This is where they spent the night on the ground. 

The next morning, they woke and at breakfast. They marched down Highway 62 and west on Highway 37. During their long, hard march they had seen cars passing by and people staring at them along the way. Cars with license plates from various states. By the time they had finally made it to the halfway point of Chickasha, Oklahoma, they were seeing the unbelievable.

Black people had gathered and were singing Freedom songs as the group of marchers entered. Clara Luper was so overcome with emotions that she hid behind a truck and cried. 

Oklahoma Publishing Company Collection,

Oklahoma Historical Society.

The group of people that gathered there had set up tables of food and drinks to replenish the marchers. People had come from all over Oklahoma to wish them luck. Clara had even received a swimsuit to use to swim in Doe Doe Amusement Park. Eventually, they had to leave Chickasha but they left with lifted spirits. They spent one more night outdoors during their march to Lawton. 

When they reached the suburbs of Lawton, some of the residents had food and drinks prepared for them upon arrival. But once they reached the Park, they were received by the police. Although 88 people marched from Oklahoma City, the longer they stood there, hundreds more accompanied them from the far corners of the state. 

Owner Ben Hutchins approached Clara, ready to negotiate. The mayor also arrived at the park and stated that a recently created human relations commission will make an ordinance to eliminate discrimination in all public places within the week.

Their goal had been achieved.

FINDING A VOICE FOR ALL

The sanitation workers of Oklahoma City had contacted Clara Luper and brought complaints of discrimination to the NAACP Youth Council's office at the Freedom Center. Over 200 sanitation workers wanted Clara to be their spokesperson with their grievances to the city manager. 

Clara met with Robert Oldland, the city manager, on numerous occasions and the only thing he would give her is misinformation, the runaround, and the same answer every time: "You cannot speak for the sanitation strikers." He consistently reminded her that she has "assumed a role that cannot be; she is not a spokesman or representative of any portion of the city's workforce."

Clara Luper will speak up for anyone who needs a voice.

The sanitation workers went on strike. The city tried bringing in outside workers but those on strike, along with Clara, would put up human barricades in front of the sanitation trucks. The mayor called an emergency meeting of the city council and issued an emergency proclamation prohibiting the congregation of three or more persons in certain areas of the city, especially sanitation truck garages. Clara reminded the people of the freedoms of the U.S. Constitution's freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. 

BLACK FRIDAY - August 19, 1969: People from all across the city, all ages and colors marched on city hall. The first official count was two thousand. By the time they arrived downtown, 10,000 people were participating in one way or another. The marchers had reached Main and Walker and were now face to face with a mob of police officers. This area was restricted under the mayor's orders. The police chief asked the group to turn around and go back to the East Side. The group began singing "We Shall Overcome." They marched through the police officers to city hall. then walked back to St. John's Baptist Church. No arrests were made and there was no violence. Black Friday had ended.

The state and city had tried to show their power and it backfired. American citizens have the right to assemble peacefully and to protest and the mayor tried to put a stop to it. The leaders of the city yielded to the demands of the Sanitation Workers. The Sanitation Strike was over. 

2012.201.OVZ001.5768 Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. August 20, 1969.

running in the race

THE U.S. SENATE RACE - 1972:

Clara Luper campaigned from Sulphur, OK to Kansas, OK. Her son Calvin was her Public Relations Director. She traveled all over the state. People referred to her as "one of us." People even came from Los Angeles to help her campaign. 

Although she was accepted by a large group of people, most thought that she had two strikes against her: she was black and a woman. Her response, "I'm not convinced that I can't win. I'm Black and Proud. I'm a woman and I'm proud to be a woman. So I enjoy being me. If someone votes against me for those reasons, I don't need his vote." 

She was asked, "You realize that you will be representing white people, do you feel that you, a Black Woman, can represent white people?"

Clara answered, "Of course. I can represent White People, Black People, Red People, Yellow People, Brown People, and Polka Dot People. You see, I have lived long enough to know that people are people, and that's more than I can say for some white people." 

Unfortunately, she did lose the election like the other Democratic candidates. Dewey Bartlett won the election that year. 

2012.201.B0366B.0555 Oklahoma Publishing Co. Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. November 16, 1971.

 continuing to break down
the walls

These are just a handful of the many experiences in the life of one of Oklahoma's most influential figures. Along with fighting for civil rights, she educated many. She educated children in the classroom and adults who needed re-educating on what equality really meant.  

She taught history for 41 years starting at Dunjee High School and ending at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City in 1991. Her teachings of the minds of the youth were so influential that one student became the first African American chief of police in Oklahoma City and another was the reason he became a U.S. Army Colonel. 

She continued to demonstrate and march non-violently for years to come. She marched in Selma, Alabama.

Clara wrote the book Behold the Walls (1979), an autobiography about her fighting for civil rights in the late 1950s and 1960s in Oklahoma.

Clara Luper was inducted in the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Afro-American Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. She has also received an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University. This university also gives the Clara Luper Scholarship which is awarded to students of diverse backgrounds with financial needs. 

Mrs. Clara Luper passed away of natural causes on June 8, 2011. She is survived by her three children, Calvin, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, and Chelle Luper Wilson.

© 2020 by Dayna Robinson 
Historical photos provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society