Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clara Luper - Pioneering Civil Rights Activist Dies

Where else but in the New York Times would the death of someone like Clara Luper be recognized, a true civil rights pioneer, whose fame, unfortunately, never transcended the boundaries of the State of Oklahoma? Nevertheless, her achievement was noteworthy. As an adult advisor to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Luper had the courage and strategic acumen to stage a sit in at an Oklahoma City lunch counter in August of 1958 to protest Oklahoma's legal statutes supporting racial segregation. This was a full 18 months before four Black students from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College received national attention for refusing to leave a Greensboro lunch counter.

Although not given national publicity, the sit-in campaign that Luper led to desegregate the lunch counters at the Katz's Drug Stories continued for years. It eventually led to the full integration of the chain's 38 stores scattered throughout the lower Midwest.

Clara Luper was also the first African American to earn a master's degree in history from the University of Oklahoma 1951. Born in 1923, she taught in Oklahoma City schools until retirement in 1991. Although she was proud of what she accomplished as a teacher, she also observed that teaching and preaching were the only vocations available to Blacks in the 1940s and 1950s. Teaching was her only real chance at practicing a profession. From 1960-1990 she also hosted her own radio program about efforts to promote equity and racial justice and she eventually wrote an autobiography called "Behold the Walls." In the later 1950s, she was so inspired by Dr. King's efforts in Montgomery, Alabama that she wrote a play about his campaign for nonviolence called "Brother President." This play, which was produced in New York City, helped to make possible a trip that Luper and her students took to Gotham in 1957. The experience of being in a city where there was relatively little overt racial discrimination led Luper and her students to launch a campaign in Oklahoma city to end public segregation.

At first, Luper and her students wrote letters to public officials and newspapers to express their opposition to segregation. But when all of the conventional ways of making change proved ineffectual, Luper and her students opted for something more dramatic: Lunch counter sit-ins. As Clara Luper herself put it in a television interview with Oklahoma Television, the point was "to do what I could do while I could - to eliminate segregation of all kinds." See this link for a videotaped interview with Clara Luper:

In an interview in a blog called StoriesinAmerica, Luper was asked in 2005 what it meant to her to be a Christian. Her answer could not have been simpler or more timely. She said plainly: "Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live." The wisdom of Clara Luper, Oklahoma teacher and activist, dead at age 88.

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