The first knowledge I had of Clara Luper was of her as a hero of my mother’s. My mother, in her own small way, was also a civil rights activist. I don’t think she would have called it that-but it was. When we lived in Louisiana, when I was a little girl, my mother insisted on paying everyone who did any work for us at the going rate for whites. She also tried to insist that they sit at table with us-it was they who refused, from justified fear, and had to explain to my mama why you ‘just don’t do that.’ Later, when my daddy’s work brought us to an all-white small town in Oklahoma, we made monthly trips to the City (OKC) for staples, fabric, and clothing.
When I was about 12, the youth sit-ins led by Ms. Luper started at Katz and we honored them. A little later, when they protested separate water fountains and restrooms at John A Brown’s, mama’s favorite department store, we had to go to a different store to go to the restroom and get a drink. She would fuss at THAT store about their equally unequal amenities. Needless to say, this left an indelible imprint on a young girl who found herself vocally taking on her classmates, in small town Oklahoma, who had very different opinions about the sit-ins generally and about Ms. Luper in particular.
Later, when I became involved in politics and ran for office, it was my pleasure and honor to be on the same speaker list with Ms. Luper several times. We got to know one another through that connection as we visited a little before and after the event. I loved listening to her-she was always fiery and dead-on. I heard her tell a story several times that went something like this: “It used to bother me when people called me an ‘agitator.’ It was a criticism that really stung, until one day I was looking in my washing machine and I realized nothing gets clean without the agitator stirring things up.’ And so she did ‘stir things up’ in many challenging and wonderful ways.
She taught three of my children Civics at John Marshall High School. Each of them would tell you she was one of their best teachers and helped her students, not only learn history, but learn how to think independently about history. When Jesse Jackson visited John Marshall, she chose my son for the honor of introducing Jackson because of my son’s lively participation in her class.
But the finest moment I shared with Ms. Luper was when I, along with her, was a speaker, at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., event, held inside the State Capitol rotunda. I took my mother to the event and, in my talk, I spoke of our collective roots, black and white, in the civil rights movement. I shared a little about how it looked from the perspective of those who are not black but who want to stand in solidarity and support; how we are appalled by what we do know and humbled by what we who do not experience this prejudice firsthand will never know. I talked about my roots in my mother’s unflinching commitment to equality in her own life. After the event, I had the great honor of introducing my mother, at long last, to this amazing woman who was her hero. Ms. Luper was so gracious to her and mama was positively glowing!
Ms. Clara Luper, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, took stands on other issues which are still controversial. When a historical black church refused to let the ML King parade start on its grounds because of the presence of the Oklahoma Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus in the parade, Ms. Luper led a march to the steps of the church and, in her inimitable style, berated the church and sat on the steps until the police arrived and then dared arrest on behalf of the freedom of others.
Her book, Behold the Walls, is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes description of her earlier contributions and the beginnings of her long leadership in the freedom fight for our country’s heart and conscience. I can only hope, that among her writings, at the end of this long life, is the sequel. It, too, would be a tribute to a giant. As with all who pass, we say ‘rest in peace, dear one.’ And I do pray peace for her with all my heart-certainly she deserves it. But for Ms. Clara I would add, ’may the memory of your spirit forever bolster our courage and enliven our willingness to speak the truth for freedom and justice.’
– Donna Compton, M. Div.