On August 19th 1958, an African-American woman with round shaped glasses walked into an outlet of the Katz drugstore along 200 W. Main in Oklahoma shepherded by thirteen black children, four chaperones and fellow members of the NAACP. The assertive woman, a local school teacher and her group cognizant of the stringent segregation rules that restrained the store from catering to black customers summoned the attendants and ordered bottles of Coca-Cola and Hamburgers.
The attendants sure enough refused their request but the woman and her group were unfazed. They maintained their position at the store regardless of the rebuttal, lingered until the close of business with a total disregard for the incessant threats and racial slurs from the white customers, the arrival of the police which halted any possible escalation to violence and the general wave of hostility.
The group returned the next day replicating the event and two days after the initial sit in, spurred by the non-violent gripe and a media attention which the store did not need, the management of the drugstore desegregated its lunch counters. This successful sit in would catalyze a chain of others that will within the following six years provoke various stores across America to change their segregation policies.
The woman was Clara Luper.
Katz Drugstore, August 1958
Born Clara Mae Shepard in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma in 1923 and to World War 1 trouper Ezell Shepard and his wife, a laundress, Luper was not new to the front of activism. Upon her graduation from Langston University, Luper enrolled into the history department of the University of Oklahoma for her masters, becoming the first African American to do so.
She concluded her masters and kick-started a career as a history teacher across different Oklahoma public schools becoming an active member of the NAACP. The chocolate skinned woman with round spectacles bouncing off her nose was a familiar sight during the progression of the Civil rights movement.
A year before her famous sit in, Luper wrote a play performed by her High school students Brother President which focused on Martin Luther King Jr and his fervent belief in change orchestrated by diplomacy and non-violence. The play was first staged at Dunjee High School which was east of Oklahoma City and also where she taught at the time. Nevertheless, believing her work to be sparking more vital conversations to the Civil rights movement, the NAACP invited Luper and her students which made up the Youth Council to perform the play in New York City.
Stimulated by the intense lessons of non-violence present in the play, she and her students upon their return to Oklahoma and through a voting process in the Youth Council decided to commence a chain of civil defiance and non-compliance across the state to put a stop to the practice of racial seclusion. It was this resolution and a suggestion from her eight year old daughter that led to the first sit in at the Katz drugstore a few months later.
While the fruitful sit in garnered a lot of media attention and led to a replication of the scene across the city, it was however not an all access ticket to the council’s dreams of ending segregation. In an uprising that would last till 1964, Luper spearheaded numerous other sit-ins, consumer injunctions, one-on one confrontations with store owners, peaceful protests and endless sensitization campaigns.
She was arrested twenty-six times, received countless death threats and was branded to be chasing a lost cause. But Luper also found support in the black community and across a healthy number of religious whites. She once said about Oklahoma, “The people are Christian people, and we love them. We’re depending on Christians to come to our rescue — white and black. If Christianity fails, then we surrender.”
In 1964, after a series of peaceful disobedience events across public spheres in the United States, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill that legally vetoed discrimination in most public accommodations.
But Luper didn’t end there. In subsequent years and induced by the phenomenal effects defiance can create, she chaired campaigns for equal banking rights, employment opportunities, open housing, and voting rights. She organized the Oklahoma City Sanitation Strike in 1969, became a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1972, and founded the Freedom Center, Inc.
Reacting to the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and why it was no shock, Luper said,“I came from a family of believers. We believed in the sun when it didn’t shine. We believed in the rain when it wasn’t raining. My parents taught me to believe in a God I couldn’t see.”
Luper died in 2011 but her contributions to the civil rights movements are till this day remembered. She was inaugurated into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007 and in 2018, the department of African and African American studies at her Alma-mater, University of Oklahoma was named in her honour.
In a 1998 article where Luper speaks about her sit-in, she says; I knew I was right, because somewhere I read in the 14th Amendment, that I was a citizen and I had rights, and I had the right to eat. Within that hamburger was the whole essence of democracy. If you could deny me the right to eat, you could deny me the right to live or work where I want.
Featured Image: NewsOK.