You had to know Clara Luper back in the day to get it

You had to have known Clara Luper back in the day to get it.

Fifty years ago, she was the face of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City.  As a reporter for The Daily Oklahoman-Oklahoma City Times, I photographed that face for the first time with a Polaroid camera (the first, and likely the last, Polaroid photo to appear in the Times) during a downtown sit-in.  By then, she’d been at it for three or four years, leading sit-ins, and the police officers there to keep the peace knew her well.

I didn’t, at the time.

As a child of the South, I grew up with "White Only" and "No Coloreds" signs everywhere.  My exposure to treatment of blacks was limited to my parents’ contact with our maid, also named Clara.  She was "Miss Clara" to me in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

And Clara Luper became "Mrs. Luper" to me; it never occurred to me to call her "Clara" until I once slipped and called her that during my KTOK show when we’d had a particularly animated conversation about those days.

My first impression of her in 1962 was that she was pushy; arrogant probably also came to mind.

Abundantly clear was that she was in charge. She spoke, those with her acted. Or did not.

She was defiant, demanding, her face appearing chiseled from steel.

I saw that look many times in the ensuing years, sometimes during demonstrations, other times in interviews.

As integration took hold in Oklahoma City, the confrontations and demonstrations grew less frequent and then a lot of years passed before I saw her again.

She remembered me, however, and we had a long conversation. There was no small talk. Clara Luper didn’t do small talk. Not with me, anyway, nor with anyone else that I observed.

Today, there’s an outpouring of kind comments about Clara Luper’s life and I’m certain there are some out there, too young to remember what it was like in 1962, who will wonder what all the fuss is about.

You had to have known Clara Luper back in the day to get it.



Editor’s Note: Statements on the passing of Clara Luper include:

Governor Mary Fallin said, “Clara Luper was an Oklahoma hero, a tremendous civil rights activist and a devoted mother. Her leadership and commitment to equality and justice will never be forgotten. My thoughts and prayers are with her family as we remember her life and her many accomplishments.”

Lt. Governor Todd Lamb added, “Our state has lost a wonderful person of conviction, passion, vision and love.  Clara Luper personified the greatness of Oklahoma and made our state a better place to live.”

U.S. Congressman James Lankford (R-OK) said, “Last night, our state and our nation lost a bold and honored leader in the civil rights movement.  The courage of Clara Luper and her children provided the turning point in Oklahoma’s race relations, through their dignified and principled stand against discrimination in 1958. A lifetime later, our culture has made great strides, but we still have much work to do to remove barriers that keep Americans from achieving their fullest potential. Today’s generation can thank Clara Luper for many of the freedoms they experience today. S eldom is a teacher of American history also the subject of American history, but Mrs. Luper filled that unique role in Oklahoma classrooms, allowing her students to benefit from her experience and passion.

“Having laid to rest my beloved 86-year-old grandmother just yesterday, the day of Mrs. Luper’s home-going, Cindy and I extend our heartfelt sympathy and support to the Luper family in this time of loss. Her memory and legacy will live well beyond our lives and will be an example for generations to come.”

Oklahoma State Conference NAACP: “The Civil Rights movement lost a giant today. Mrs. Clara Sheperd Luper was a woman who broke down racial barriers throughout her entire life, and dedicated her personal and professional life to the struggle for all people of color. We will miss her dearly” stated Oklahoma State Conference NAACP, President Anthony R. Douglas.

"The planning for staging the “sit in” began in May 1957, and had been talked about for over a year, and on the morning August 19, 1958, the Youth Council decided to stage their first “sit-in" at Oklahoma City’s Katz Drug Store. While walking into the store and ordering cokes, the youth, under Luper’s guidance, demonstrated their discontent with segregation and launched what is known throughout the world as the beginning of the nation’s “Sit-In-Movement”.  The Youth Council had four basic rules that must be understood.  First, define your objective to –eliminate segregation in public accommodations. Second, to be honest — honesty pays.  Third, you are not to ridicule, humiliate, nor vilify anyone at any time or in any way.  Fourth keep your goals in site, recognize that individuals have weaknesses and can be embarrassed for mistreating his brother.

"She become an agent of change for civil and human rights and has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others.  Her example demonstrates that overcoming civil and human rights obstacles to achieve personal success can be used by people of great vision, courage, and commitment to advance the cause of civil and human rights for others.

"We are extremely saddened at the loss of this freedom fighter and humble soldier for justice and, express our sincerest condolences to the family members of Mrs. Clara Sheperd Luper; as we celebrate her rich life and legacy. Her dedication, commitment and many years of service are an inspiration to us all."