Sunday, June 12, 2011

Who Is Clara Luper?

Originally published July 30, 2006; updated June 12, 2011, on the event of her death

Looking at old and new parts of Oklahoma City is certainly fun – for some. Segregated public and private facilities of all types prevailed during most of the time those old movie theaters downtown were still in place. This 1939 image from an Oklahoma City street car terminal shows what I mean:

(Credit: Voices of Civil Rights, Library of Congress Exhibition,
It was in such a milieu that Mrs. Luper was born and raised. From this Buffalo, New York, website, Uncrowned Queens,, this answer is given as to who she was, and is today:

Skip to the Clara Luper Death Update
During 41 years as an award winning Oklahoma educator, Mrs. Clara Luper taught history and made history. Born in 1923, Mrs. Luper grew up near Hoffman, Oklahoma. She graduated from Grayson High School and matriculated to Langston University where she earned a B.A. degree. Mrs. Luper received her M. A. degree from the University of Oklahoma and taught school at Taft, Pawnee, Spencer and Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Many know Mrs. Luper as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. She began the Oklahoma Sit-In Movement, August 19, 1958 when she led a group of students in a sit-in at an Oklahoma City lunch counter. This effort and continuing efforts resulted in restaurants in Oklahoma City and across the state opening their doors to African Americans. This was the first publicized sit-in in the nation. Mrs. Luper led the Oklahoma City Public School integration fight, participated in the historic March on Washington, D.C., Selma, Alabama and every major march in America. She was arrested 26 times in Civil Rights activities. She led with courage and persistence and taught that non-violence activism was the way to freedom.
Mrs. Luper has written, and has been written about, extensively. An outstanding interview with her is at and a snippet from that article follows:
Oklahoma Sit-Ins: A Conversation with Clara Luper

"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.
And so it came to be that Ms. Luper and many others started their walks to downtown from was then called the Calvary Baptist Church at Calvary Baptist Church in Deep Deuce, 300 N. Walnut, walks that would be joined by E. Melvin Porter, Charlton Heston, and many others.

Fast-forward to 2006. Professor Bob Darcy, Regents Professor of Political Science and Statistics, Oklahoma State University 1991-present, wrote this to the school's newspaper, The Daily O'Collegian, March 3, 2006 – Calling her "A hero of our generation", the professor said this:

We live in an age barren of heroes.

I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. We had great people, good and bad. There were Hitler and Stalin, Churchill, DeGaulle, Franklin Roosevelt. We had generals Eisenhower and McArthur — the like of which we have not seen again. It was not so only in politics and war.

Painters? Who can name a painter living today? In my day we had Picasso and Chagall. All of us had their prints in our dorm rooms. We knew Picasso and Chagall and talked about their comings and goings.

Poets? Who can name a living poet? In my day we had T.S. Elliott, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost. We could recite their lines and discuss them — and we did.

Writers? How about Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck? Those men spoke at our schools.

Philosophers? Who can name a living one? In my day we had Bertrand Russell leading anti-nuclear demonstrations and Jean Paul Sartre critiquing U.S. foreign policy.

Scientists? Who can name a living one? We had Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Francis Crick and James Watson.

Humanitarians? We had Albert Schweitzer. Who do we have today?

Great leaders for human freedom? We had Mohandas Gandhi, Carrie Chapman Catt and Martin Luther King. Do we have their equal today — or do we have only actors who play them? I lived in such times, among such people.

I was wrong when I said we live barren of heroes. You have one of that generation. Clara Luper, mother of the Civil Rights Movement, last of the heroes who redeemed Oklahoma and showed the way for the rest of the country.

Luper was born in Okfuskee County and was educated in the segregated schools of Hoffman and Grayson in Okmulgee County. Her early memories include the sign in nearby Henryetta that said “Negro, read and run, If you can’t read, Run anyway.” She recalls using discarded white-school textbooks with missing pages, sitting at the back of trains, not being allowed to try on clothes in stores, and exclusion from restaurants, libraries, bathrooms, and phone booths. Among the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Oklahoma, a professor told her “I have never taught a nigger and never wanted to.”

That evil world was created by a few Oklahomans led by Alfalfa Bill Murray. Writing Oklahoma’s Constitution, Murray said, “We should adopt a provision prohibiting the mixed marriages of negroes with other races in this State, and provide for separate schools and give the legislature power to separate them in waiting rooms and on passenger coaches, and all other institutions in the State ... they are failures as lawyers, doctors and in other professions. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers ...”

Murray took the vote from African-Americans, denied them the right to study in libraries with whites, ride on trains with whites unless they were shackled, and denied them the right to shower, fish or swim in the same water as whites.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper began Oklahoma’s civil rights movement with a student sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. It took years, but she and her students integrated Oklahoma City eating establishments. The same tactic integrated white-only churches. Luper successfully turned to fair housing. The destruction of Murray’s Oklahoma had begun.

Oklahomans have a hard time recognizing their heroes. A student this week told me the first sit-ins began Feb. 1, 1960, when a group of black college students from Greensboro, N.C., began a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Luper’s sit-ins began here, a year-and-a-half earlier.

We diminish ourselves when we fail to recognize the great among us. Oklahoma sit-ins began our national salvation and Luper led the way. Luper, the last of my generation’s heroes.

Oklahomans — know her and know yourselves. Remember and share the story of when Luper redeemed us.
While it might be a bit much to say that she "redeemed us" – we'd probably need to do that for ourselves – she certainly showed us how we might get started doing so! Mrs. Luper and Professor Darcy are pictured below at OSU on March 2, 2006:

In another Daily O'Collegian article, July 5, 2006, Professor Darcy makes a proposal, particularly given that two women's dormitories at OSU are named for the patently racial and religious bigot Alfalfa Bill Murray –

Colorful Oklahoma hero resurrects Eichmann’s project

In his 1947 self-published “Palestine,” William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, former president of Oklahoma’s Constitutional Convention, Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, congressman and governor, honored with Murray Hall and North Murray Hall by Oklahoma A&M College, wrote “Deal with the Jewish problem by giving them ... Madagascar Island ... on condition that all Jews shall become nationals of such Jewish state (with one exception, that Jews and their families who came to America prior to 1900 shall retain, if they desire, their American citizenship).”

Murray advocated not allowing Jewish refugees, or “Refu-Jews,” into the United States, and Jews in the United States, citizens or not, be rounded up and shipped to Madagascar. Palestine should be reserved for Christians and Muslims. “Mohammedans are Pro-Christ.”

The Madagascar idea did not originate with Murray. It can be traced back to 19th century French and Polish anti-Semites. The Nazis adopted and elaborated the idea.

In the 1930s Hermann Göering, Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht and foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop all circulated it. But Madagascar was French, not German, and it went nowhere.

Then, in 1940, France fell and it seemed to the Nazis that Great Britain would soon follow. The plan became feasible.

Franz Rademacher, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jewish Department, proposed to divide Europe’s Jews into two groups. The eastern Jews were to be held in Poland, the western Jews deported to Madagascar, desirable for its isolation.

In Rademacher’s plan, defeated France would give Madagascar to Germany. Europeans living in Madagascar would be removed. Defeated Britain would transport the Jews. Jews would be responsible for local government in Madagascar under a German SS police governor. The operation would be paid for by Jewish property confiscations.

“This arrangement would prevent the possible establishment in Palestine by the Jews of a Vatican State of their own, and the opportunity for them to exploit for their own purposes the symbolic importance which Jerusalem has for the Christian and Mohammedan parts of the world. Moreover, the Jews will remain in German hands as a pledge for the future good behavior of the members of their race in America.”

Hitler discussed the plan with Mussolini in June 1940. On Aug. 15, 1940, Adolf Eichmann released the draft “Madagaskar Projekt” to implement the design. But Britain did not fall and Madagascar itself was in British hands by 1942. Nazis turned to the Final Solution.

Murray thought the Madagascar Plan could be adapted to America’s “Jewish Problem.” He did not need to go into logistics; Eichmann and Rademacher had done all that.

But Alfalfa Bill Murray was no admirer of Adolf Hitler. To the contrary, Murray ranked Hitler with Stalin, Mussolini and Franklin D. Roosevelt as an “international outlaw.” But, at least in 1940, he was not troubled one bit by a German victory.

This colorful Oklahoma anti-Semite was also a race bigot and architect of Oklahoma’s segregation and Jim Crow. For several decades he did his best to give the nation the idea Oklahoma was a place of ignorance and intolerance.

Murray was no friend of OAMC. He came up with the Murray Foundation to help poor students with loans. The revenue for the foundation would come from taking OAMC faculty’s book royalties. And he managed to get rid of OAMC’s best-ever football coach, Pappy Waldorf.

Murray Hall and North Murray should have permanent interactive exhibits highlighting Alfalfa Bill Murray’s contributions to race bigotry, anti-Semitism and his ongoing feud with OAMC.

Or we should change the name and honor Clara Luper, who dedicated her life to dismantling Murray’s racist institutions.
Change the name of Murray Hall? What a concept! Guess what? Here's where you can sign the petition: It reads,

To: Oklahoma State University Administration and Board of Regents
By signing this petition, I understand that I am pledging my support for the initiative to rededicate Murray Hall to Clara Luper and the Oklahoma City Sit-in Movement. I think Murray Hall should be renamed Clara Luper Hall.

The Undersigned
So, who is Clara Luper? Among her many other titles, she is an Oklahoma City Hero! Why not think about signing that petition?

June 12, 2011, Update:
Clara Luper Dies on June 8, 2011

The front page of the Oklahoman carried the story on June 10 (click the image for a large view of Clara Luper's image):

The long story which accompanied that headline can be read below. The small sized views of the article appear below but are difficult to read. Click on either image for a readable and printable view.

Her contributions to this city and to the civil rights movement, and her death, were noted around the nation. See BET, June 11; New York Times, June 11; Washington Post, June 9; among many other articles.

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Resonance said...

Hey, Doug, great post! People like Clara who stood up for what they believed in certainly count as heroes in my book! My personal heroes of today are Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Jobs and Dennis Kucinich. (My dad's up there, too!)

Coincidentally, I just wrote an entry about heroes myself, also asking people to chime in and tell me about their heroes. (Check it out!)


Doug Dawg said...

Thanks, Ryan.

I did check ... good post. Yours is a bit more "political" than I tend to get here, though. Mainly, history is my deal.

Doug Dawg said...

The Downtown Guy has just written a great historical note on the sinage of the Calvary Baptist Church ... here's the link: click here

Maybe Clark will say hello here, sometime! (grin>)

Doug Dawg said...

From a thread at OkcTalk I see there is not unanimity about what I've said here ... and that's fair and to be expected. Please don't hestitate to post here if you disagree ... after all, I'm a civil liberties kind of guy and if I don't respect your right to speak, my own right won't be secure, either!

So ... feel free to post whether you agree or disagree with my own point of view.

Doug Dawg said...

To the above, I'll add this:

"Is this a new cause for preservationists"?

If isn't, it should be. My opinion.

I don't get the notion that many anglo-christian folk even give a blink of the eye about how it was in those sit-in days. It's much more comfortable just looking at "now".

That's fair enough, but it also betrays history. Not a comfortable part of history (for whites or blacks), but nonetheless history.

The history of Oklahoma City would be seriously flawed if it omitted the efforts of Clara Luper and those like-minded with her.

I don't mean to say that we'd all agree that she was a "saint" given her reported comments during the Vietnam war about Ho Chi Minn, which, if true, I'd agree that such comments were way out of line.

Before then, though, in 1962, when our OSU debate team was turned away from entering the restaurant which was then immeditately south of Frontier City on I-35 (Wright's Steak House, i think) because we had a Black member in our group, that is the day that my "white" eyes took off their blinders.

I cannot begin to say what a dark day that was for my wakening perception. I cannot begin to say what a continuing moment of collapse and distress that day meant for me ...but how worse that day it must have been from my Black team-mate on that day in the spring of 1962. His burden was life long. Mine was just beginnng.

Some at OkcTalk critique Mrs. Luper for her remarks during the Vietnam War. Some would ignore the outrageous positions taken by Gov. Alfala Bill Murray, besause he did so much for this state and our "working people.

To those views, I dissent.

naacp6213 said...

So sorry to hear that Mrs. Luper had passed. Such an inspiration to generations of students and activists. We posted a link here from our blogspot

Doug Dawg said...

Thank you, naacp6213. Clara Luper is an OKC hero (heroine if using past-tense terminology, which she might actually prefer since she was a child of that era) but not only to this city but to the nation. Regardless of whether she was hero or heroine, to Clara, we all say, "Thank you, and God bless." To her new life, we all say, "We hope to meet you someday, sweet lady. Thanks for all you did -- to help black citizens, and those who were/are not."

Mike N. said...

Clara was a wonderful lady whod did many great things. Please do not let anybody forget she was a magnificent cook. I recall her and her sister at the state fair year after year.

Fried Catfish and Fried Green Tomatoes. Nothing better!!!