Clara Luper dies at 88. Reflections of admirers in peace and justice community

Clara Luper, Oklahoma City’s famed civil rights activist, passed away on Wednesday, June 8.

Obituary in the Daily Oklahoman
Photo retrospective from the Oklahoman.

She was a role model and inspiration for all those who seek justice.

Nathaniel Batchelder writes:

Beloved Clara Luper stood for universal human and civil rights, no exceptions.  That is her legacy of love to this world.  She could not, and did not, remain silent when anyone was judged, bullied, or discriminated against, simply because of who they were.  Rest in peace, dear Clara Luper.

From Bob Bearden:

Clara Luper, venerated Oklahoma City Civil Rights Leader, is dead at the age of 88. She was an icon in Oklahoma and well-known across the nation for her activism. She is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame!

She taught school in the Oklahoma City School system for many years and was a highly regarded teacher among her colleagues and her students, and is remembered fondly and lovingly by many of her students.

In the following account, Clara Luper, the leader of many Oklahoma City civil rights demonstrations between 1958 and 1964, describes the first sit-in at OKC’s Katz Drug Store in 1958.

THE KATZ DRUG STORE SIT-IN, 1958 account by Clara Luper

Katz Drug Store was located in the Southwestern corner of Main and Robinson in downtown Oklahoma City. It was a center of activity with its first class pharmacy department, unique gifts, toys and lunch counter. Blacks were permitted to shop freely in all parts of the store. They could order sandwiches and drinks to go. Orders were placed in a paper sack and were to be eaten in the streets…

As I was thinking about what should have been done, Lana Pogue, the six-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Louis J. Pogue, grabbed my hand; and, we moved toward the counter. All of my life, I had wanted to sit at those counters and drink a Coke or a Seven-Up. It really didn’t matter which, but I had been taught that those seats were for “whites only.” Blacks were to sweep around the seats, and keep them clean so whites could sit down. It didn’t make any difference what kind of white person it was, thief, rapist, murderer, uneducated; the only requirement was that he or she be white. Unbathed, unshaven–it just didn’t make any difference. Nor did it make any difference what kind of black you were, B.A. Degree black, Dr. Black, Attorney Black, Rev. Black, old Black, pretty Black, ugly Black; you were not to sit down at any lunch counter to eat. We were all seated now in the “for whites only territory.” The waitress suffered a quick psychological stroke and one said in a mean tone, “What do you all want?”

Barbara Posey spoke, “We’d like thirteen Cokes please.”

“You may have them to go,’ the waitress nervously said.

“We’ll drink them here,” Barbara said as she placed a five dollar bill on the counter. The waitress nervously called for additional help.

Mr. Masoner, the red, frightened-faced manager, rushed over to me as if he were going to slap me and said, “Mrs. Luper, you know better than this. You know we don’t serve colored folks at the counter.”

I remained silent and looked him straight in the eyes as he nervously continued. “I don’t see what’s wrong with you colored folks–Mrs. Luper, you take these children out of here–this moment! This moment, I say.” He yelled, “Did you hear me?”

“Thirteen Cokes please,” I said.

“Mrs. Luper, if you don’t move these colored children, what do you think my white customers will say? You know better, Clara. I don’t blame the children! I blame you. You are just a trouble maker.”

He turned and rushed to the telephone and called the police. In a matter of minutes, we were surrounded by policemen of all sizes, with all kinds of facial expressions. The sergeant and the manager had a conference; additional conferences were called as different ranks of policemen entered. Their faces portrayed their feelings of resentment. The press arrived and I recognized Leonard Hanstein of Channel 9 with his camera and I sat silently as they threw him out and a whole crew of cameramen.

The whites that were seated at the counter got up, leaving their food unfinished on the table and emptied their hate terms into the air. Things such as “Niggers go home, who do they think they are? The nerve!” One man walked straight up to me and said, “Move, you black S.O.B.” Others bent to cough in my face and in the faces of the children. Linda Pogue was knocked off a seat, she smiled and sat back on the stool. Profanity flowed evenly and forcefully from the crowd. One elderly lady rushed over to me a fast as she could with her walking cane in her hand and yelled, “The nerve of the niggers trying to eat in our places. Who does Clara Luper think she is? She is nothing but a damned fool, the black thing.”

I started to walk over and tell her that I was one of God’s children and He had made me in His own image and if she didn’t like how I looked, she was filing her complaint in the wrong department. She’d have to file it with the Creator. I’m the end product of His Creation and not the maker. Then, I realized her intellectual limitations and continued to watch the puzzled policemen and the frightened manager.

Tensions were building up as racial slurs continued to be thrown at us. Hamburgers, Cokes, malts, etc., remained in place as pushing, cursing, and “nigger,” became the “order of the day.”

As the news media attempted to interview us, the hostile crowd increased in number. Never before had I seen so many hostile, hard, hate-filled white faces. Lana, the six-year-old, said, “Why do they look so mean?”

I said, “Lana, their faces are as cold as Alaskan icicles.”

As I sat quietly there that night, I prayed and remembered our non-violent philosophy. I pulled out what we called Martin Luther King’s Non-Violent Plans and read them over and over…

As I folded the paper, I looked up and saw a big burly policeman walking toward me. When he got within two feet of me, another officer called him to the telephone. I wondered why the policeman had to stand over us. We had no weapons and the only thing that we wanted was 13 Cokes that we had the money to pay for.

Amid the cursing, I remembered the words of Professor Watkins, my elementary principal and teacher in Hoffman, Oklahoma. He told us to “consider, always, consider the source…”

My daughter, Marilyn, walked over and pointed out a big, fat, mean-looking, white man, who walked over to me and said, “I can’t understand it. You all didn’t use to act this way; you all use to be so nice.”

We remained silent and as he bumped into me, the police officers told him that he had to move on. An old white woman walked up to me and said, “If you don’t get those little old poor ugly-looking children out of here, we are going to have a race riot. You just want to start some trouble.” I remained silent. “Don’t you know about the Tulsa race riots?” the woman asked.

I moved down to the south end of the counter, then back to the other end. This was repeated over and over. As I passed by Alma Faye Posey she burst out laughing and when I continued to look at her, she put her hands on the counter and pointed to a picture of a banana split.

It had been a long evening. Barbara, Gwen and I had a quick conference and we decided to leave without cracking a dent in the wall. Mr. Portwood Williams, Mrs. Lillian Oliver and Mrs. Mary Pogue were waiting. We loaded in our cars and left the hecklers, heckling.

We passed our first test. They…called us niggers and did everything, the group said.

“Look at me, I’m really a non-violent man,” Richard Brown yelled. “Look at me. I can’t believe it myself…”

I had the chance to meet Clara Luper and hear her speak at the first Interfaith Thanksgiving Service I attended in 2001 at the Temple B’nai Israel on N. Penn. Although she was nearly 80 years old at the time she had not lost her sense of humor nor her passion for causes and speaking out on the issues of the day.

Although, I did not know her well, I feel privileged that I did at least get to meet her and shake her hand.

She was a Great Lady and she WILL BE MISSED!

May she Rest In The Peace she so richly deserves!


Ode To Clara Luper

She had a quiet dignity,
You noticed right away,
An ever ready smile,
That lighted up the day.

With a style and grace,
And a quiet simple charm,
She was ever the lady,
Yet could beguile and disarm.

She knew what was right,
Never wavered from her goal,
She always stood for justice,
She was brave, courageous, bold.

We pay homage to a woman,
Though little she had clout,
Working for those less fortunate,
She climbed every redoubt!

She made sure that equality,
Was extended to one and all,
Standing up for our freedoms,
Clara Luper still stands tall!

Update: Read Donna Compton’s tribute