Paul R. Lehman, Ms. Clara Luper, priceless.June 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Posted in American Bigotry, Ethnicity in America, Race in America | 2 Comments
Tags: African Americans, black and white, Capito; Hill, Civil Rights, Clara Luper, Henryetta, Langston University, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Thurgood Marshall
Oklahoma, the nation and indeed, the world morns the loss of
a civil rights icon, Clara Luper, who died recently at the age of eighty-eight.
Most people know of Mrs. Luper’s involvement in the historic sit-in at Katz
Drugstore and other public demonstrations but little about what motivated her
to get involved in the civil rights struggle. Visiting with Mrs. Luper in 1999,
we had a change to discuss that aspect of her life. Our discussion was
published in the “Humanities Interview,” a publication of the Oklahoma
Humanities Council, Fall of 1999.
Mrs. Luper was asked when she first became acquainted with
the NAACP, the organization to which she has been long associated. Her response
was that she had been in this organization for all her life and especially when
she attended Langston University, and again, when the organization came to
Oklahoma. She became involved in its work as a youth advisor in 1957.
Since Oklahoma was segregated prior to and including 1954 the opportunity to demonstrate against unfair treatment was not readily available. Mrs. Luper was asked to give some background into what let to her active involvement in protest activities. She stated that:
I grew up in Hoffman, Oklahoma, which is a small town where the blacks lived on one
side and the whites lived on another, where I had to walk, five miles to attend high school, Grayson High School Where we would go in the evenings, look into the white schools and see all the books and
just wish we could get in there and read. In Hoffman, Oklahoma, we had separate schools’, we had separate everything. It Was close to Henryetta, Oklahoma, where they had a sign:”Negros read and run; if you can’t read, run anyway.”
She told about not being allowed to try on shoes in Henryetta, Oklahoma and her mother buying shoes and bring them home taking for granted that they would fit. The one thing that stands out in her mind was “I saw my brother die after being taken to Henryetta, Oklahoma, where the doctors refused to wait on him because it was the law. They did not want to break the law.”Experiencing such a needless tragedy made lasting impression on her mind. But that experience alone was not the deciding element that motivated her into protest action. She states: “I hated segregation. And then I read the Constitution of The United States, and it seemed to me the more I read it, the more it spoke to me and said to me, “You are a citizen of the United States; you are entitled to these rights.” The NAACP had as its philosophy, had as its purpose to eliminate segregation. I would have considered myself to be a fool if I did not get into that organization. So it was that in 1954, we had a great victory when Thurgood Marshall ordered Linda Brown’s case to the Supreme Court. I never shall forget Thurgood Marshall’s rulings that said my case was won when the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution.”
What Luper said that ruling meant to her was that there was no place for segregation in education, transportation, public accommodation, housing, and employment as well as other things. She adds, “So I got involved as the advisor of the NAACP Youth Council because nobody else would take it.
That’s how I got it—because nobody else would take it. They (members of the NAACP chapter) went around the table and around and around and then finally, Dr. Atkins (Charles Atkins) said, ‘Clara, you don’t have anything to lose.’ And I said, ‘I sure don’t have anything to lose.” So I took it.”
When Mrs. Luper was asked if there was something significant about the location in Oklahoma City where the demonstrations took place, she answered “yes.” She went on to explain that We decided on Katz Drugstore, which was an all-purpose store. You could buy shoes down in the basement; you could eat upstairs if you were white; you could buy your medicine. It was quite an experience, plus it was open late and it was convenient. Katz Drugstore was where black people went in and they bought shoes, they bought clothes; they had their prescriptions filled. We thought that would be the ideal place. And it was.
Among her many experiences Mrs. Luper recounts a visit she made to a church in Capitol Hill where she went alone. She did not realize that the lines of men in the front of the church were not there to welcome her, but to prevent any outsiders from seeing her, a black woman enter the church. She
recall that: So, when I got into the church, the minister introduced me and he said, We have
with us this evening Ms. Clara Luper, a black woman.” I said, “Well thank you sir, I did not realize that I was coming to speak to a group of blind people.” He didn’t like that too well, but anyway I was able to make my point. I told them I was glad to be with my sisters and brothers because my understanding, but I might be wrong, was that we are all God’s children. Maybe you have a different philosophy, but I’m here at home with my brothers and sisters. And boy, I really made a big impression.
Ms. Luper mentioned that some white people had the fear their peers would reject them if they took a stand against segregation. Many did take a stand, she adds: “I was in jail twenty-six times, and most of the time someone white went along with me. When I went to Selma there were whites and when I went to Birmingham there were whites. …there were those that believed in freedom and those who didn’t.”
The life of any human being is complex even if the life was short, but when someone has lived some eighty-eight years no short account can begin to give justice to that life. The measure of the life of a person such as Ms. Clara Luper is not accounted by the fame and accolades she garnered for
herself, but what she was able to do for others through her life. The gifts she gave to Oklahoma, the nation, and the world are simply priceless. May she rest in peace.