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Dr. Gwendolyn Fuller Mukes was just a teenager when she, her advisor Clara Luper and a dozen other students in the NAACP Youth Council braved violent hatred to stage a sit-in at the lunch counter of a whites-only drug store.
What began as a small but defiant rejection of Jim Crow on August 19, 1958 at Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City quickly morphed into the spark that created the national sit-in movement.
It’s taken Mukes 30 years to share her story in the form of a children’s book, but now she wants the world to know.
“Gwen Didn’t Care: A True Tale of the Silly, Ridiculous, Unjust, Unfair, Unfortunate Laws of Jim Crow,” can be purchased on Amazon or at Full Circle Bookstore in OKC.
In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, Dr. Mukes described what motivated her to release her book. She also described what it felt like to remain in her seat amid the rushing current of racist hostility she faced as a teen.
“Politicians are trying to take our history away from us,” Dr. Mukes said. “I wanted to memorialize this story so my children, grandchildren, adults and everybody’s children would know what it was like back in the day.”
Dr. Mukes said the white store employees were shocked to see a group of Black students and civil rights leader/educator Clara Luper defying segregation. She’ll never forget the response from so-called Christians.
“We were spat on, we were pushed. We were called the N-word,” Dr. Mukes told The Black Wall Street Times. Yet after three days of perseverance, the store owner agreed to integrate the lunch counter.
New book shows the evils of Jim Crow in a way kids can understand
Dr. Mukes revealed a passage from her book in which a group of jungle animals ask each other where to find Jim Crow. Ultimately, through the conversation, a bird high up in the canopy points to a Black crow next to it, revealing it as Jim Crow.
The passage illustrates how books about racism and trauma can still be taught to students in a palatable way.
Like a tree planted by the water, Dr. Mukes still remembers how a white female employee tried to physically move her out of the booth during the 1958 sit-ins.
“And I started singing ‘I shall not, I shall not be moved,’ and I held onto the table. I was determined she was not going to push me out of that booth. I had every right to be there,” Dr. Mukes told The Black Wall St. Times.
While she hopes her book will inspire a new generation of kids and adults to learn about this history, some activists in Oklahoma City have been continuing her tradition for years.
On August 19, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, sit-iner Gwendolyn Mukes and other activists sang songs and cultivated community during the 65th anniversary of the OKC sit-in movement.
NAACP advisor, activist and schoolteacher Clara Luper detailed the moment her students took a trip North and experienced integration for the first time.
“We went to New York City…and boy, those kids got where they could walk in a restaurant and eat and they were just so happy,” Luper said in a video shared by the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Their eyes blossomed. Oh it was wonderful.”
Once they returned south to Oklahoma, the kids became determined to change the environment around them.
“The group meet at my house on a hot August day. And on that day my daughter Marilyn said, ‘I tell you what. Let’s go down to Katz Drug Store and take us a seat because people really don’t see us,'” Luper explained.
OKC sit-ins inspired new tactics in the national Civil Rights Movement
The Greensboro Sit-in on February 1, 1960 in North Carolina is widely considered the beginning of the sit-in movement. It’s a tactic of nonviolence resistance popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. years later.
Yet the Oklahoma City sit-ins that began in 1958 actually inspired the sit-ins in Greensboro and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Mukes said there was a lesser-known sit-in one state away a month earlier that inspired Clara Luper to do the same in OKC.
“You have to go back because in Wichita, Kansas they were the ones who really started it, but they did not have permission from the national NAACP,” Dr. Mukes told The Black Wall Street Times.
The Dockum Drug Store sit-in in Wichita Kansas was the first student-led sit-in in the nation, occurring in July 1958. After a month of relentless determination, the store’s owner finally caved into the tactic and desegregated his store on August 11, 1958. It was just a week before the 13 students in OKC would do the same.
“Serve them — I’m losing too much money,” the store’s owner said, according to the Kansas Historical Society. The two local newspapers refused to cover it, and the local NAACP chapter gave only moral support. Yet the students in Kansas created a domino effect that reverberated from Oklahoma to North Carolina and across the nation.
Ultimately, Dr. Mukes said she hopes her book will inspire the next generation to carry the torch of civil disobedience for transformative change.
“I’m hoping that they will wake up, they will smell the roses and they will want to do something that will protect our rights,” Dr. Mukes said.