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Oklahoma's Own Civil Rights Leader

While Martin Luther King Jr. led the U.S. civil rights movement, Clara Luper emerged as Oklahoma's civil rights leader.
Oklahoma's Own Civil Rights Leader

Oklahoma's Own Civil Rights Leader

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Oklahoma Historical Society

Show Details

Show 1504: Oklahoma's Own Civil Rights Leader
Air Date: January 25, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, this past week our nation pauses to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet few people know that Dr. King was almost an Oklahoman. Straight out of the seminary, he came to Oklahoma City in view of a call to preach at a local Baptist church. And while church deacons recognized his potential, they believed he was just too young to guide their congregation. It wasn’t long before Dr. King went on to guide the civil rights movement, while here in Oklahoma, another civil rights leader emerged by the name of Clara Luper. We had the honor to visit with this true Oklahoma icon at the Oklahoma History Center before her passing in 2011.

Rob: For the young people behind these paper plates, something as simple as eating at a lunch counter was once impossible in Oklahoma because of the color of their skin. But by using nonviolent methods, a young Clara Luper accomplished something even the courts couldn’t. All after a simple bus trip with a group of students to an NAACP rally in New York.

Clara Luper: My young people had the opportunity to ride on a bus, to go into restaurants, cafes, and eat, which is really a big thing because they had been part of the Jim Crow programs of their own state. Then we came back to my beloved South, where we could not eat in any restaurants. We would have to find a grocery store and get some baloney and crackers or something. But when we got to Oklahoma City, these young people decided that they would take on a project. And they said, , “Well, we have enjoyed eating in public places. Let’s take on public accommodations,” and this we did.

Rob: So on Aug. 19, 1958, Ms. Luper and her students marched to Katz Drug Store and started what became known as the longest nonviolent sit-in movement in the history of the country.

Luper: We’ve come a long ways, believe me. We’ve come from the back of the buses to the front of the buses to drivers to owners. When you start behind in a race, you have to run twice as fast as other people in order to catch up. What kept me moving? I had to move. I came from a family that believed in something that was bigger than themselves. My family believed in a sun when it didn’t shine and in the rain when it didn’t fall. They believed in a God that they had never seen, and they believed that some day we would be able to stand and stand strong.

Rob: Making the African American story not just one of obstacles overcome and battles won, but a message of hope that still lives on in Clara Luper.

Singer: We shall overcome someday.