Path Home Shows 2016 Show Archive October 2016 Show 1640 Clara Luper, Leading the Way

Clara Luper, Leading the Way

Value Added: While Martin Luther King Jr. led the U.S. civil rights movement, Clara Luper emerged as Oklahoma's civil rights leader.
Clara Luper, Leading the Way

Clara Luper, Leading the Way

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Oklahoma Historical Society - Clara Luper

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Show 1640: Clara Luper, Leading the Way
Air Date: October 2, 2016



Courtenay Dehoff: Her name doesn’t resonate like that of Rosa Parks, and she did not garner the kind of national attention that Martin Luther King did. But Oklahoma’s Clara Luper was a pioneering woman in the civil rights movement. Leading one of the first sit-ins at a drugstore in Oklahoma City, Mrs. Luper is credited for forcing local eateries to desegregate all across Oklahoma. Throughout her life, she worked for equal rights until her death this year at 88. Our Jessica Lowe was able to visit with her as part of a black history exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center. And today, we remember this remarkable woman.

Jessica Lowe-Betts: For the young people behind these paper plates, something as simple as eating at a lunch counter was impossible, all because of the color of their skin, a harsh reality that’s documented in the African American exhibit at the new history center in Oklahoma City. Curator Bruce Fisher says that this is the first permanent exhibit that tells a history story that’s never been told.

Bruce Fisher: Every facet of Oklahoma history involved something that relates to the African American story. In this rotunda, there’s a two-thirds dimensional exhibit of the Winnie May, the great airplane flown by Wiley Post. Everybody knows who Wiley Post is. He was a great aviator from Oklahoma, but most people don’t know that the first black aviators to fly transcontinentally from L.A. to New York were also from Oklahoma, Jay Herman Banning and Thomas Allen. These guys were pioneers in their own rights and great aviators. But that story has largely been overlooked until now.

Jessica: And Fisher says the list of black pioneers goes on and on throughout Oklahoma history. After spending six and a half years talking to our state’s civil rights leaders and collecting archives and artifacts, Fisher says that this educational exhibit is like no other.

Fisher: You can go through the education section of the African American exhibit and hear the actual voices of people like Roscoe Dunjee; he was the foremost civil rights activist in early Oklahoma history. Hear his reaction the day they announced the decision of Brown versus Board of Education. You can actually hear what his response was.

Jessica: And during our visit, Fisher introduced us to a woman who he says has been a giant in the civil rights movement in Oklahoma, Clara Luper.

Fisher: Not enough praise has been given to Clara Luper. She did something that no one else could do. She did something that the courts couldn’t do. But she used a nonviolent method of sit-ins to actually open public accommodations for African Americans in Oklahoma.

Clara Luper: We were talking about winning the revolution where the white man certainly needed help in seeing what America was all about. We’d be in a position so after the sit-in we could continue to progress, where if we had used some other tactics we could not have progressed.

Jessica: A civil rights icon of Oklahoma, Luper took a group of students from Oklahoma City to an NAACP rally in New York City.

Clara Luper: My young people had the opportunity to ride on a bus, to go into restaurants, cafes, and eat, which was 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.

Jessica: 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 this country. But it wasn’t until 1964 that barriers to pubic accommodations were removed. And Clara Luper says the African American community has reached new heights since then.

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.

Jessica: But there’s still more work to be done.

Luper: 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.

Jessica: So unlike many courageous others who never saw freedom at its best, Clara Luper still stands strong in her commitment and contributions to the African American experience.

Luper: Without the prayers, the hope, the training, the investment and the sacrifice of a lot of people, there would be no Clara Luper. I want to be remembered as a lover of people who wanted more than anything else to help somebody, knowing that if I could help somebody, I would not have lived in vain.

Jessica: Making the African American story not just one of obstacles overcome and racial battles won, but a message of hope in the stories that still live on today.

Singer singing: We shall overcome some day.