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By Autumn Brown, Senior Writer
It is easy for one to believe, “surely, if history has once been written, it ought to stand.” But what if written history is skewed and lacking?
There is a group of Oklahomans who radically changed the landscape of democracy in the state. But what truly made the movement special, what it is known for today, is one woman:
Teacher. Activist. Pioneer. Revolutionary.
Becoming the NAACP Youth Council advisor in 1957, Luper would soon embark on a journey to upend segregated public accommodations in Oklahoma City.
Ms. Luper put pen to paper and wrote her first play “Brother President,” inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his philosophy on nonviolence.
“Striking” is among the words used to describe her play. Indeed it was, because it led to her students being invited to New York City to perform.
Luper took 26 young students from Spencer, Oklahoma, to New York City on a transformative route that would birth a movement.
Traveling to New York City, Luper took her students on the northern route. On this route, students were treated like human beings and were able to sit and eat at public accommodations like first-class citizens. But coming back to Oklahoma, Luper took her students the southern route. It was this route that students were able to experience the dehumanizing effects of Jim Crow. Their taste of freedom during the northern journey awakened a giant in students, leaving them wanting more.
Luper was strategic and knew that taking her students both routes would activate them into seeking change. And they did. Meeting in Luper’s living room, her students began to organize one of the first sit-down demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement. The goal was to desegregate public accommodations in the city (i.e., public lunch counters, shops, Frontier City).
Beginning with Katz drug store in downtown OKC, 13 children and their advisor, Luper, took a seat. And after two days, they successfully integrated the public lunch counter at Katz and 50 stores of the Katz drugstore chain.
What Luper did with her students was revolutionary. Leveraging her role as an educator, she incorporated activism into her teaching, though the efforts here in Oklahoma remain invisible and overshadowed by the Greensboro sit-ins.
And for a local group of Oklahomans, they have made it their mission to lobby for the inclusion of this history in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) as well as the National Museum of American History (NMAH).
I caught up with Bruce Fisher, a member of the Luper Legacy Committee and the son of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, about their time in D.C.
The Luper legacy committee grew from Marilyn Luper Hildreth, Clara Luper’s daughter and chairperson of the Luper legacy committee, and her desire to celebrate Luper’s birthday, May 3. Volunteers from the event agreed to stay together, forming the legacy committee, and every August 19, the committee holds a “freedom fiesta” celebrating the anniversary of the Oklahoma sit-ins.
As the group neared the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins in 2018, they began actively planning a trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the inclusion of Oklahoma’s history in the NMAAHC and the NMAH. On March 6, 2020, the group presented historical information to Anthea Hartig (Executive Director of NMAH) and Spencer Crew (Executive Director of NMAAHC) on the 1958 sit-down demonstration. Their documentation served as proof of the significance and success of the movement in Oklahoma City. They aim to have Oklahoma’s history included alongside the Greensboro movement, which receives the majority of the credit for the nation’s first and most successful movement during Civil Rights.
The document provided was a report compiled and presented at the 1959 NAACP National Youth Council Convention. In the text, it states that “Of the four cities who participated in nonviolent sit-down demonstrations, Oklahoma was by far the most successful.”
Among those in attendance at the convention was Ezell Blair, Jr., Civil Rights activist and known member of the Greensboro Four. Taking the idea back to Greensboro, Blair (now Jibreel Khazan), Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, and Moses McCain staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter; an idea that spread across college towns in the south.
My question is this: Had it not been a success in Oklahoma City, would Greensboro have happened?
Like the Luper legacy committee, I firmly believe this history has a rightful place in National history. Oklahoma City’s sit-down demonstration is often written about and described as an event, but it was a movement.
Though receptive of the presented artifacts and documentation, there is a need for more scholarly, peer-reviewed writing on the history of the sit-in movement in Oklahoma City. In essence, including our history in Oklahoma City requires a changing of the narrative, challenging and deconstructing the existing narrative placing Greensboro at the center of the movement.
In the meantime, volunteers and scholars continue to keep the legacy of Clara Luper alive, locally and nationally. In December 2019, Oklahoma voters approved funding on the Maps 4 project. This project will fund the restoration of the Clara Luper freedom center and the building of the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center.
Autumn Brown is a doctoral student in social foundations of education at Oklahoma State University. Social foundations analyzes and explains educational issues, policies, and practices through the lenses of history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Its goal is to improve the educational experiences for members belonging to marginalized groups. Her research focus centers around the experiences of black women in STEM and black women within the academy. She also researches racial body politics, sexuality, and intimate justice for black women. She has published a book chapter titled “Breaking the silence: Black women’s experience with abortion,” and has presented her work on the intense policing of the black female body nationally. Autumn plans on continuing her pursuits in bringing awareness to the injustices imposed on members within her community, and advocating for equitable education for black and brown students. She plans on finishing her Ph.D. in May 2020 and hopes to move into a tenure-tracked faculty position at a top tier research university.