Clara Luper

  • Born: May 23, 1923
  • Died: June 8, 2011
  • Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


In this Nov. 16, 1971 photo, longtime Oklahoma civil rights leader, Clara Luper announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate at a rally on Oklahoma city's east side. Luper, who led sit-ins at drug store lunch counters in Oklahoma, has died at age 88.

Oklahoma civil rights icon dies at 88

KEN MILLER, The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As she watched a television broadcast of President Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009, Clara Luper had tears in her eyes. The Oklahoma civil rights icon knew that her and other activists' struggle had reached a milestone with the election of the nation's first black president.

"This is our day," she said at the time, calling his inauguration the "fulfillment of dreams of people."

Luper, who died late Wednesday at age 88 after a lengthy illness, led sit-ins that helped integrate drug store lunch counters in four Midwestern states. While sponsor of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, the former high school teacher, radio host and author — who was arrested 26 times during protests — prepared young blacks for the sit-ins, many of whom praised her Thursday as a loving, firm advocate.

"She took a community that had little except their voices and their feet, and she used those resources to the best of their ability for change," said state Rep. Mike Shelton, a family friend and member of Oklahoma's Legislative Black Caucus.

"In some way, she has touched every life in the state of Oklahoma, whether they know it or not, because of her contributions, her persistence, her dedication to her fellow man," the Oklahoma City Democrat said. "There aren't many people you can say that about."

On Aug. 19, 1958, a 35-year-old Luper led three adult chaperones and 14 members of the youth council in a sit-in at the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City. The store refused to serve the group but the protesters refused to leave, and the sit-in lasted for several days.

The store chain eventually agreed to integrate lunch counters at 38 Katz Drug Stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. During the next six years, the local NAACP chapter held sit-ins that led to the desegregation of virtually all eating establishments in Oklahoma City.

"She brought the times up to her expectations," said Gwendolyn Fuller Mukes, a retired school teacher in Wichita, Kan., who was among the 14 students who participated in the first sit-in.

"I remember her being loving but firm. She made us secure. She was a great teacher all around. She was ahead of her time."

Mukes said that during those sit-ins, she'd never seen so much hatred, but Luper was their advocate and staunchest supporter and "taught us how to look white people in the eye."

"You knew that you had to go through with it because you did not want your children to grow up in the same environment. No one should have been treated the way we were treated," Mukes said.

Luper's daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, said her mother instilled the same fight in her own family.

"We talked about it all the time, because our whole family took part in it," said Hildreth, who said her mother died Wednesday evening in Oklahoma City. "I think mother saw a lot of advancements (in civil rights) and she told us to always stay on the battlefield. The fight continues."

Portwood Williams Jr., another student who took part in the Katz sit-ins, said he couldn't recall any of the protesting teenagers expressing fear.

"Believe it or not, the way we felt about it was quite the contrary. When you're a teenager, you don't know enough to be afraid. We thought it was fun," he said.

James Norick, who became Oklahoma City's mayor shortly after the sit-ins, praised Luper as a great leader who brought about change in a peaceful way, noting that "we didn't have a big problem here like we did in some places in the South."

Luper was born in Okfuskee County in eastern Oklahoma and graduated from Langston University in 1944. She earned a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1951, and was the first black person admitted to the university's graduate history program, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

She later taught history and public relations at Dunjee High School in Spencer and at John Marshall and Classen high schools in Oklahoma City before retiring in 1991. Throughout her career, she continued her civil rights work, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. during other peaceful protests.

"While her accomplishments are too many to list, her legacy is easily defined," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said. "She opened eyes and, in turn, opened hearts and minds ... and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people."

Cornett said flags on city property will be flown at half-mast through sunset Friday to honor Luper.

Luper hosted her own radio show for 20 years and told her story in her autobiography, "Behold the Walls." She said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press that she dedicated her life to spreading the message of racial and gender equality.

"My biggest job now is making white people understand that black history is white history. We cannot separate the two," she said.

Oklahoma City named a street in Luper's honor and there is a scholarship in her name at Oklahoma City University. In 2007, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and in 2009, she received the National Education Association's Rosa Parks Memorial Award.

"She had the desire and determination to promote equality in the state of Oklahoma, and in promoting equality here, she promoted equality internationally," said state Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, another member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous expressed similar praise, saying Luper's civil rights efforts resonated nationally.

"Clara Luper was an inspiration to us all," Jealous said. "Her courage, dedication and passion for civil rights was unmatched. She will be missed."

Luper is survived by two daughters and a son. Her funeral will be held June 17 at 11 a.m. at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.

Condolence & Memory Journal

We once ordered Calf-Fries for my npeehw to try when we were in Arizona. Do you know what calf-fries are? When he found out, he almost killed us. Totally worth it. Have fun!

Posted by Hewuar - eUkCPLZql, TX - xW81b3SAepPw   July 03, 2015

Thank you sooooo much for your pdglee of $2,500 to the Service High School Cheerleaders and Booster Club in Anchorage Alaska. The Service High Cheerleaders are the ONLY Alaska Cheer Team to have been invited to perform in the Champs Bowl Half Time Show in Orlando Flordia at Christmas 2012. As it is expensive to get uniform gear and travel all the way from AK to FL and back, we really really appreciate the monetary pdglee. It's sure gonna help out alot! The girls are sooooooo excited for this once in a life time opportunity. Thanks again. This is such a blessing. Melanie Stromme.

Posted by Liz - Z6I91XCnSw, NV - gQxpHc3ffv   July 03, 2015

Wow! Great thignikn! JK

Posted by Trevon - gtsLU09HC, MN - UTfqlijyaoDO   July 02, 2015


I did not get the chance to meet Ms. Luper but, I was able to attend the Miss Oklahoma State pageant that she had founded. I had the awesome experience to go and learn about her and all that she was able to do for Okalhoma City, and get to see some of her many accomplishments.

Posted by Miss Black Ardmore 2011    September 20, 2012

When my career was just getting off the ground, I met Mrs. Luper. She was warm and friendly and I learned more from her in the lounge than I ever learned in a history book at John Marshall High School. She was an inspiration and a wealth of information for a new teacher. Our paths crossed many times over the years, especially when she was a guest speaker. She touched many lives and will be sorely missed. God be with her family now and always.
C. Jane Lowther

Posted by C. Jane Lowther - The Village, OK - co-workers   July 06, 2011

Thank you grandma for everything that you have done and taught me. I will always remember you and everything that you have taught me I will pass it to my kids. I remember when Chelle and I would have arguments and you would make us hold hands and walk around the fireplace until you said " Court is now in session ". I remember when I use to use bad words and you would make me wash my mouth out with soap and nipped that in the bud real quick. Thank you for being a loving, caring, sharing and devoted grandma. Love always, Ellishyia.... "Grand means something special " --- Clara Luper

Posted by Ellishyia Hildreth - Oklahoma city, OK - granddaughter   June 19, 2011


To a great teacher mother leader and friend.
My mentor Ms Clara Luper
Rest in peace
Your Student Christopher Rhone

Posted by Christopher Rhone - Student   June 10, 2011

My condolences to Luper family. Clara touched many lives. she will be missed. may the God of all comfort help your family to endure during this time of grief.

Posted by James Long - Houston, TX   June 09, 2011

Default Album

In this Nov. 16, 1971 photo, longtime Oklahoma civil rights leader, Clara Luper announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate at a rally on Oklahoma city's east side. Luper, who led sit-ins at drug store lunch counters in Oklahoma, has died at age 88.
Civil rights activist Clara Luper is photographed Wednesday, March 1, 2006 , in Oklahoma City. Luper has received more than 500 awards and citations for her work in civil rights, including an Oklahoma City highway named in her honor and a scholarship program named after her at OCU.
In this Aug. 9, 1983 photo, Oklahoma Civil Rights Leader Clara Luper poses with one of the many photographs from her scrap books at a North East Oklahoma city Community center in Oklahoma City, Okla. Luper's daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, said Thursday, June 9, 2011 that her mother died Wednesday.
Calvin Luper, left, son of Oklahoma civil rights leader Clara Luper, right, sits with his arm around his mother during a ceremony to commemorate the Aug. 19, 1958 day she led three adult chaperons and 13 members of the NAACP's Youth Council, including her daughter Marilyn, in a sit in.