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Civil Rights Icon Clara Luper Passes Away

Widely credited with the desegregation of Oklahoma City, Civil Rights icon Clara Luper passed away last Wednesday. She was 88 years old.

Marilyn Hildreth, Luper’s daughter said her mother’s battle with a longtime illness came to an end on Wednesday night. She said her mother’s greatest struggle lives on:

“I think mother saw a lot of advancements (in civil rights), and she told us to always stay on the battlefield…the fight continues.”

For many, Luper was the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, a pioneer for much of the activism that heightened in the 1960s. Before black students in Greeensboro, North Carolina were being sent to jail in droves for sitting in white-only sections of diners, Luper organized the first ever sit-in at Katz Drug Store’s lunch counter in Oklahoma City.

Though she was only 35 years old at the time, Luper lead a group of 3 chaperones and 14 members of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council and kept the pressure on Katz for several days. She later recalled the sit-ins saying:

“I knew I was right, because somewhere I read in the 14th Amendment, that I was a citizen and I had rights, and I had the right to eat. Within that hamburger was the whole essence of democracy. If you could deny me the right to eat, you could deny me the right to live or work where I want.”

The store eventually agreed to integrate its lunch counters, changing its policy throughout its chain not only in Oklahoma but in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa as well.

Derrick Reed, president of the Muskogee chapter of the NAACP told The Muskogee Phoenix:

“I had the opportunity when I met her in 1988 to see the scars on her legs where the police beat her and drug her to jail. She was a female in those times who had the courage to stand up against racism by leading the sit-in at Katz Drug Store (in Oklahoma City). I applaud her for being a female and putting herself on the line.

In her later years, Luper was arrested twenty-six times for demonstrations in the fight for racial equality. She ran Oklahoma City’s Freedom Center and created the Miss Black Oklahoma pageant. She was a history teacher for over 40 years with a mission to bring the understanding that:

“…black history is white history. We cannot separate the two.”

On election night 2008, when then Senator Barack Obama became President-elect, Luper said that she was not surprised to see a black man elected President of the United States.

“I came from a family of believers. We believed in the sun when it didn’t shine. We believed in the rain when it wasn’t raining. My parents taught me to believe in a God I couldn’t see.”

When President Obama was sworn into office in January 2009 on the Capitol steps, Luper clapped her hands and exclaimed:

“I hadn’t planned on dying until I saw this day. If I die now, I’m OK.”


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