OKLAHOMA CITY — As she watched a television broadcast of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Clara Luper had tears in her eyes. The Oklahoma civil rights icon knew that her and other activists’ struggle had reached a milestone with the election of the nation’s first black president.
“This is our day,” she said at the time, calling his inauguration the “fulfillment of dreams of people.”
Luper, who died June 8 at age 88 after a lengthy illness, led sit-ins that helped integrate drug store lunch counters in four Midwestern states. While sponsor of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, the former high school teacher, radio host and author — who was arrested 26 times during protests — prepared young blacks for the sit-ins, many of whom praised her Thursday as a loving, firm advocate.
“She took a community that had little except their voices and their feet, and she used those resources to the best of their ability for change,” said state Rep. Mike Shelton, a family friend and member of Oklahoma’s Legislative Black Caucus.
“In some way, she has touched every life in the state of Oklahoma, whether they know it or not, because of her contributions, her persistence, her dedication to her fellow man,” the Oklahoma City Democrat said. “There aren’t many people you can say that about.”
On Aug. 19, 1958, a 35-year-old Luper led three adult chaperones and 14 members of the youth council in a sit-in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City. The store refused to serve the group but the protesters refused to leave, and the sit-in lasted for several days.
The store chain eventually agreed to integrate lunch counters at 38 Katz Drug Stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. During the next six years, the local NAACP chapter held sit-ins that led to the desegregation of virtually all eating establishments in Oklahoma City.
“She brought the times up to her expectations,” said Gwendolyn Fuller Mukes, a retired school teacher in Wichita, Kan., who was among the 14 students who participated in the first sit-in.
“I remember her being loving but firm. She made us secure. She was a great teacher all around. She was ahead of her time.”
Mukes said that during those sit-ins, she’d never seen so much hatred, but Luper was their advocate and staunchest supporter and “taught us how to look white people in the eye.”
“You knew that you had to go through with it because you did not want your children to grow up in the same environment. No one should have been treated the way we were treated,” Mukes said.
Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, said her mother instilled the same fight in her own family.
“We talked about it all the time, because our whole family took part in it,” said Hildreth, who said her mother died Wednesday evening in Oklahoma City. “I think mother saw a lot of advancements (in civil rights) and she told us to always stay on the battlefield. The fight continues.”
Portwood Williams Jr., another student who took part in the Katz sit-ins, said he couldn’t recall any of the protesting teenagers expressing fear.
“Believe it or not, the way we felt about it was quite the contrary. When you’re a teenager, you don’t know enough to be afraid. We thought it was fun,” he said.
James Norick, who became Oklahoma City’s mayor shortly after the sit-ins, praised Luper as a great leader who brought about change in a peaceful way, noting that “we didn’t have a big problem here like we did in some places in the South.”
Luper was born in Okfuskee County in eastern Oklahoma and graduated from Langston University in 1944. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1951, and was the first black person admitted to the university’s graduate history program, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
She later taught history and public relations at Dunjee High School in Spencer and at John Marshall and Classen high schools in Oklahoma City before retiring in 1991. Throughout her career, she continued her civil rights work, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. during other peaceful protests.
“While her accomplishments are too many to list, her legacy is easily defined,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said. “She opened eyes and, in turn, opened hearts and minds … and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people.”
Cornett said flags on city property will be flown at half-mast through sunset Friday to honor Luper.
Luper hosted her own radio show for 20 years and told her story in her autobiography, “Behold the Walls.” She said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press that she dedicated her life to spreading the message of racial and gender equality.
“My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history. We cannot separate the two,” she said.
Oklahoma City named a street in Luper’s honor and there is a scholarship in her name at Oklahoma City University. In 2007, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and in 2009, she received the National Education Association’s Rosa Parks Memorial Award.
“She had the desire and determination to promote equality in the state of Oklahoma, and in promoting equality here, she promoted equality internationally,” said state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, another member of the Legislative Black Caucus.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous expressed similar praise, saying Luper’s civil rights efforts resonated nationally.
“Clara Luper was an inspiration to us all,” Jealous said. “Her courage, dedication and passion for civil rights was unmatched. She will be missed.”
Luper is survived by two daughters and a son. Her funeral will be held June 17 at 11 a.m. at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.