Clara M. Luper dies at 88; Oklahoma civil rights activist led lunch counter sit-ins

Clara M. Luper, a black civil rights activist in Oklahoma whose early leadership of lunch counter sit-ins helped break down racial barriers at restaurants and diners nearly two years before the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins captured national attention in 1960, died of natural causes Wednesday at her home in Oklahoma City, her family said. She was 88.

Luper’s role in civil rights history began with a Greyhound bus trip to New York City in 1957. A high school history teacher, Luper had written a play called “Brother President,” about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the successful Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Luper and her students were invited to perform the play at the NAACP’s national convention in New York.

Knowing that many of her students had never been outside Oklahoma, Luper plotted a route through the North that would expose them to cities where segregation was not practiced. During a stopover in St. Louis for dinner, the group ate at a lunch counter with white customers for the first time in their lives.

“That was amazing to us,” recalled Marilyn Hildreth, Luper’s daughter, who was 8 at the time.

After their performance in New York, the group took a Southern route home. As they reentered Jim Crow territory, they once again were eating their meals out of paper sacks.


According to her daughter, Luper often said “a little bit of freedom is a dangerous thing.” On the way home, she thought about her father, a World War II veteran who died that year, never having had the experience she and her students had in St. Louis.

“I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos,” Luper wrote in her memoir, “Behold the Walls” (1979). “And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, ‘Someday will be real soon,’ as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, ‘Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let history alone be our final judge.’ ”

Back in Oklahoma City, the youth council decided to launch a new project: breaking down the color lines that prevented blacks from being served equally with whites at lunch counters.

They tried negotiations first, but the city’s eating establishments feared losing their white customers if they began serving blacks and refused to change. After a year of unsuccessful talks, Luper and the youth council took direct action.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper and 13 students, who ranged in age from 6 to 17, entered Katz drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City and took seats at the counter. “Thirteen Cokes, please,” Luper said, but the waitresses ignored them. White customers spit and poured drinks on them, hurled epithets and left in disgust without finishing their meals. “People that had known us for years began to curse at us,” Luper recalled in a 2005 interview with the blog Stories in America.

After several hours, the protesters gave up. But when they returned the next day, they were served drinks and burgers. “Within that hamburger was the whole essence of democracy,” Luper said later.

Cheered by their success, the “sit-inners,” as they were called, took their peaceful protests to every restaurant in the downtown area. Similar protests popped up at diners across the state.

In 1960, the sit-ins spread across the country after four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a whites-only lunch counter inside a Greensboro Woolworth’s store.

Luper was arrested 26 times before the Oklahoma City Council passed an ordinance in 1964 outlawing discrimination in public accommodations because of race, religion or color. It was adopted two days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A native of Okfuskee County, Okla., Luper was born May 3, 1923. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Langston University in Langston, Okla., in 1944 and a master’s in history from Oklahoma University in 1951. She taught public school for 40 years, served on the Oklahoma City school board, led battles for school integration and championed the teaching of black history.

In addition to Hildreth, she is survived by a son, Calvin; another daughter, Chelle Luper Wilson; a sister, Onita Brown; five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.