In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons, and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1950s.
Although she is often overshadowed by Rosa Parks in the history books, Clara Luper was a pioneering leader in the American Civil Rights Movement and a commanding voice in her time for social change and reform.
Born May 3, 1923, in rural Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Clara Mae Luper was the daughter of a World War I veteran and a laundress, both of whom worked incredibly long hours to support their family. A good student from the start, Luper went to high school in the all-Black town of Grayson, Oklahoma. In 1944 she attended Langston University, earning a B.A. in mathematics. Not ready to stop learning, Luper made history in 1950 when she became the first Black student to enroll in the history department at the University of Oklahoma. Luper graduated the following year with an M.A. in History Education.
With her studies finished, Luper began teaching high school history classes at Dunjee High School in Oklahoma City. Deeply inspired by the success of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she also became increasingly involved with the burgeoning civil rights movement. She joined the NAACP Youth Council and became a mentor and leading figure in the group’s ongoing campaign to end the segregation of public accommodations. Rather than promoting violence and unrest, however, Luper believed the key to her group’s success was the opposite tactic — sit-ins, protests and boycotts. With members of her Youth Council, Luper also worked to help write and stage a play around those nonviolent principles and the teachings of Dr. King. It was entitled “Brother President.”
Word of the well-received production made its way to other chapters of the NAACP, and in 1958, Luper and the Oklahoma City Youth Council were invited to perform “Brother President” for the NAACP’s main chapter in New York City.
Inspired by the sights and sounds of the Big Apple, where segregation was a thing of the past, Luper and her Youth Council members decided that when they returned to Oklahoma, they had to find a way to end segregation in their hometown as well. On Aug. 19, 1958, their plan began when Luper, her son and daughter, and a group of Youth Council members entered a segregated Katz drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City. They took seats, asked to be served, and refused to leave until they were.
The plan worked. In less than a week, Katz corporate management in Kansas City had officially desegregated their lunch counters in three different states. Luper’s sit-in was one of the first sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
From those humble beginnings, Luper led numerous additional protests and sit-ins across the south. She fought to promote equal banking rights, improve employment opportunities, and bring about improved voting rights. With the help of the NAACP Youth Council, she is said to have personally integrated hundreds of different restaurants, cafes, theaters, hotels, and churches. She also notably participated in the historic March on Washington, D.C., Selma, Alabama, and every major march in America and was arrested 26 different times for actions she took as part of her ongoing fight to promote civil rights.
Luper continued working as a community activist and teacher through the 1960s and 1970s. She also entered the world of politics, serving on Governor J. Howard Edmondson’s Committee on Human Relations and even running for a spot on the Oklahoma Senate in 1972.
When asked by a member of the press at one of her many campaign stops if she, a Black woman, could represent white people, Luper famously responded with her good-natured charm: “Of course! I can represent white people, Black people, red people, yellow people, brown people, and polka dot people. You see, I have lived long enough to know that people are people.”