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Oklahoma civil rights pioneer Clara Luper dead at 88

NewsOK is reporting

Clara Luper, a civil rights pioneer whose lunch counter sit-ins helped end discrimination in public restaurants, has died. She was 88.

Luper died Wednesday night in Oklahoma City after a long illness, family members confirmed.

Luper has been the face of the Oklahoma civil rights movement since 1958 when she led a sit-in protest inside Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City, where the owners had refused to serve black customers.

Although she is not widely known outside of Oklahoma (or to many modern-day Oklahomans, for that matter) Luper played a crucial role in the civil rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Luper was born in Okfuskee County and was educated in the segregated schools of Hoffman and Grayson in Okmulgee County. Her early memories include the sign in nearby Henryetta that said "Negro, read and run, If you can't read, Run anyway." She recalls using discarded white-school textbooks with missing pages, sitting at the back of trains, not being allowed to try on clothes in stores, and exclusion from restaurants, libraries, bathrooms, and phone booths. Among the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Oklahoma, a professor told her "I have never taught a nigger and never wanted to."

That evil world was created by a few Oklahomans led by Alfalfa Bill Murray. Writing Oklahoma's Constitution, Murray said, "We should adopt a provision prohibiting the mixed marriages of negroes with other races in this State, and provide for separate schools and give the legislature power to separate them in waiting rooms and on passenger coaches, and all other institutions in the State ... they are failures as lawyers, doctors and in other professions. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers ..."

Murray took the vote from African-Americans, denied them the right to study in libraries with whites, ride on trains with whites unless they were shackled, and denied them the right to shower, fish or swim in the same water as whites.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper began Oklahoma's civil rights movement with a student sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. It took years, but she and her students integrated Oklahoma City eating establishments. The same tactic integrated white-only churches. Luper successfully turned to fair housing. The destruction of Murray's Oklahoma had begun.

Oklahomans have a hard time recognizing their heroes. A student this week told me the first sit-ins began Feb. 1, 1960, when a group of black college students from Greensboro, N.C., began a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. Luper's sit-ins began here, a year-and-a-half earlier.

Oklahoma was also the home of another female civil rights pioneer, Ada Lois Sipuel, who applied to the University of Oklahoma Law School in 1946 but was denied entry because of her race.  The resulting case, 
Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla., was argued before the Supreme Court, with Thurgood Marshall as the lead attorney.  Although it took three years and another lawsuit, Supuel was eventually admitted to the University of Oklahoma Law School.  Her case paved the way for the eventual admission of black students to state universities, and was a precursor for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954.

Although she later became a controversial figure because of remarks she made concerning the Vietnam war, Clara Luper never gave up fighting for equal rights and, well into her eighties, worked tirelessly as an advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.  Godspeed, Clara.  
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Comments (2)

Cue the clown in chief to d... (Below threshold)

Cue the clown in chief to drop in and claim to have known of her struggle.

It is easy to forget how re... (Below threshold)

It is easy to forget how recent this is in our history.

Unfortunately too many think the discrimination of today, based on actual inability equates to the evil cited in this article.






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