On a sweltering summer night, Clara Luper was preparing grape Kool-Aid and cold-cut sandwiches in her un-air-conditioned Oklahoma City home when one of the children there changed an inauspicious NAACP Youth Council meeting into history in the making.
“Anyplace we can go downtown and eat and get a Coke? Why don’t we go downtown and sit until they serve us?” her young daughter Marilyn asked.
The youth at that meeting 50 years ago this month not only discussed the future but also reminisced on the past, one event in particular. Clara Luper’s Dunjee High School students and NAACP council members had trekked to New York City to perform a play Luper had written about Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
Betty Germany, then 17 and on the verge of going to college, listened to the animated discussion.
“We were talking about what we couldn’t do,” she said, adding that for black residents in 1958 Oklahoma City, “There were a lot of ‘couldn’t do’s.'”
What began the next day, Aug. 19, 1958, as 13 youths requested equal service at Katz Drug Store tipped off what some label as the first major sustained sit-ins of the modern American civil rights movement ” and it happened in Oklahoma City.
To mark the event, sit-in participants will shed light on the local movement this month with a series of events Aug. 17 through 23 commemorating the half-century anniversary of when black youth and adults decided to stand up to discrimination by sitting down.
“It all started with (that) Coca-Cola,” said Calvin Luper, Marilyn’s older brother.
But before that Coke, it started with a bus ride.
FROM NOTHING TO SOMETHING
When Calvin Luper and the other members of the youth council stepped off a charter bus in New York City in 1957, the skyline above and the bustle of “busses and cabs and people and horns” below took his breath away. He and his peers, most of whom had never been outside Oklahoma, tasted pizza; Automats, which plunked out ham-and-cheese sandwiches, awed them.
At home, they “had a whole lot of nothing,” Luper said, remembering riding in cars with the windows rolled up, pretending to have air conditioning. But, staying in the Henry Hudson Hotel “thanks to the pennies, nickels and dimes of Oklahoma City and the NAACP,” they tasted freedom. Performing his mother’s play, “Brother President,” to hearty applause in Manhattan and Harlem as part of a civil rights rally to which they’d been invited, they felt like celebrities.
“The people just clapped and enjoyed it so,” he said.
Those experiences excited the “busload of little black kids” from Oklahoma City, as Luper called the group, but when they went into restaurants on a northern route to the Big Apple, ordering for themselves among whites and blacks in the eateries, something even more amazing happened: nothing.
“(There were) white people, waitresses around, “¦ nobody saying anything,” he said.
To children who had been raised under segregation in Oklahoma ” Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., had only been decided in 1954, ending “separate but equal” discrimination in public schools ” the realization of an alternate kind of life astounded them. And, it made them question the way things worked in Oklahoma City: “What can we do to live like that? What can we do to make our city like that?” Luper said.
Before they would decide, the bus driver took a southern route home.
‘THE RULE, IF NOT BY LAW’
As the bus pointed south, it also headed into acceptance of a form of discrimination that had been in place in Oklahoma since before statehood. Laws and ordinances entrenched Jim Crow across the state. Schools, churches, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, water fountains, restrooms, hotels, department stores, parks and more were segregated, according to local historian Sam Stalcup.
By the Fifties, “Segregation remained the rule, if not by law,” he said.
In department stores, black people were not allowed to try on clothing. Mothers held up dresses in front of their daughters to see if they might fit.
“We weren’t allowed to try on shoes,” Germany said. “My grandmother raised us, so she would take a string and measure our feet (so she’d know what size to buy).”
Efforts to change the status quo, however, were already in effect by 1957. The Supreme Court had ruled on Brown v. Board just three years previously; it sided with Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher on her right to attend the University of Oklahoma Law School in 1948. As for Clara Luper, who taught her students the contributions blacks had made throughout American history, she said she had no choice but to take action.
“I’m black ” if I don’t do it, who will?” she told Oklahoma Gazette.
The thought seemed to take hold among the youth riding home from New York in 1957.
“(There) ain’t nothing like segregation,” Calvin Luper remembered. “You drove down the street and then when the bus would stop, you’d see the sign ‘Colored Here.’ You’d see the restroom ” ‘Coloreds Only.’ We saw ‘Colored’ and automatically started coming back to what we’d been taught. That little one-week experience was being erased.”
So, when Calvin’s little sister proposed taking their efforts to the next level in August 1958, their mother said she wasn’t surprised.
“I don’t really know what was the thought,” Marilyn Luper Hildreth said of voicing the idea that night to go downtown. “I know this ” that when we went to New York City “¦ I knew that something was wrong with the society down here.”
On Tuesday, Aug. 19, Germany swallowed her nervousness as she and her fellow council members filed into Katz Drug Store on the corner of Main Street and Robinson Avenue.
“Change is a little shaky; you don’t know what they expect,” she said.
At Katz, “a center of activity” with a pharmacy and lunch counter, as Clara Luper wrote in her account of the OKC sit-in movement, “Behold the Walls,” blacks could shop and buy drinks and sandwiches, but had to eat outside. They weren’t allowed to sit inside.
“All of my life I wanted to sit at those counters and drink a Coke or a 7Up,” she wrote. “It really didn’t matter which, but I had been taught that those seats were for ‘whites only.’ Blacks were to sweep around the seats and keep them clean so whites could sit down.”
The group seated itself.
“We’d like 13 Cokes, please,” council member Barbara Posey said.
When the waitress said they’d have to be to-go, Posey laid down a $5 bill.
“We’ll drink them here,” she said.
The goal was to sit quietly and wait until they were served.
The manager rushed over: “You know we don’t serve colored folks at this counter,” he told Luper, she wrote. “You take these children out of here this moment. Did you hear me?”
“Thirteen Cokes,” she said.
Police and news crews arrived and whites left the counter, angry. Some coughed on the children; others uttered racial epithets.
“Pushing, cussing, and ‘n—–‘” followed, Luper wrote.
“We ordered but we didn’t get anything,” Germany remembered, and the group eventually left, determined to return. “We ordered quite a few days and didn’t get anything. I think they were just as surprised to see us.”
By the end of the week, Katz capitulated. When the waitresses unexpectedly came to take their orders, Germany didn’t have any money.
“They weren’t asking us what we wanted,” she said, “and they were ignoring us. It was a surprise when they finally served us.”
The event sparked an even greater victory: The drug store company announced its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa would open service to all, Luper wrote.
‘A WAR STRATEGY’
Katz marked the beginning of a carefully planned effort that grew in participation and scope. Initially, the council and supporters focused on Katz and four other Oklahoma City establishments: Veazey Drug Store, S.H. Kress and Company, Green’s and the classy John A. Brown Department Store, in addition to area churches. But as the years passed, they targeted more restaurants throughout the city.
“We had to learn how to think,” Hildreth said. “It was just like a war strategy meeting. We did not just say, ‘Let’s go to Brown’s now.'”
At Veazey that August, staffers welcomed the demonstrators, saying the store had changed its policy and would allow everyone to eat at the counter. But at Kress, no blacks ” or whites ” would be sitting down: In response to the sit-ins, the seats had been removed. Brown’s proved challenging. The participants settled in at the luncheonette Aug. 22 and didn’t attain victory until almost three years later, in June 1961.
Over the days of sitting and waiting, the youth at times were told they had to ask permission to sit with white customers, they would arrive to find the chairs removed, or be sat on and spoken to hatefully. By the time Brown’s policies changed, according to an article by Amanda Strunk of East Central University, the youth council’s efforts had led to the integration of 117 other city stores.
The tactics worked, according to Stalcup, because they generated bad publicity for places that refused to compromise.
“Most of the businesses targeted for protests or sit-ins came to the realization fairly quickly that resistance to (de)segregation was bad for business,” he said.
But the sit-ins weren’t supported universally, even among the black community.
“It was not a popular thing, because you had a lot of people in our own community who were frightened (they would lose their jobs if they took part) “¦ and you had a lot of whites that were angry, a few who (had) wanted to become involved at first because it represented social change,” Hildreth said. “I had people who would laugh at me when I went into the classroom.”
Others wanted to help. A white woman at Anna Maude Cafeteria, located in the basement of what is now the Robinson Renaissance building, told the youth to order whatever they wanted ” she’d pay. Some restaurateurs were relieved when faced with a lawsuit mandating they integrate, according to Rose State College U.S. and black history professor James Hochtritt, who holds a doctorate. It meant they could do so without taking responsibility for it among white patrons.
As the youth council, civil rights leaders Clara Luper and E. Melvin Porter, and supporters ” including ministers, college students, blacks and whites, even Charlton Heston ” focused on more establishments, efforts likewise mounted throughout the country. In 1960, Greensboro, N.C., students staged their own sit-ins, which became famous for fomenting involvement nationwide.
“It was like a whirlwind went through America,” Hildreth said. “Young people from all around the country started ‘standing up’ and ‘sitting down.’ Our lives changed. Every Saturday we were doing the same thing ” we were protesting.”
‘THE TIME IS NOW’
Six years after the Katz sit-in, the United States put a legal end to racial discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dramatic civil rights activities in the Deep South overshadowed Oklahoma City’s sit-in achievements on a national scale. But while there was vitriol pointed at the civil rights advocates at times ” Clara Luper received a bomb threat to her house at one point ” the OKC movement succeeded without an escalation of violence suffered elsewhere.
Why? Among other reasons, according to Hochtritt, dialogue between white and black church and community leaders had already been taking place and the police worked to prevent conflict, not placing officers who might take issue with sit-in participants on the scene. Plus, in Oklahoma, the governor had not ” like many others ” encouraged residents to disobey the Brown v. Board decision and efforts to desegregate.
Today, Stalcup said, the legacy of segregation is evident in racial discrimination that still occurs. But, there is also the legacy of the sit-ins: desegregation and the powerful impact the activities had on their participants. The experience showed Germany, who retired 14 years ago from the Metropolitan Library System, how often people judge others without knowing them.
“(Afterward), I tried to be nice to people and give them a smile “¦ and try to get to know a person,” she said. “For someone to think that a group of people of any race is bad just because they want the same rights as other people is sad ” because it takes all of us to make this world. We’re in this boat together.
“The other thing it taught me was not all whites were like that. We can’t generalize. There’s good and bad in every one of us.”
What most yielded success in Oklahoma City was the leadership, Hildreth said as her three young nieces traipsed by licking popsicles in her mother’s current, air-conditioned home in Oklahoma City. It was the right time for change, she added, over the chattering of the girls, who, 50 years later, will never face buying a pair of shoes based on a length of string.
“The time is now, the time is now. That’s what we always said,” Hildreth said. “The time of social change is now.”
A series of events will be held Aug. 17 through 23 to commemorate the sit-in movement that took off in Oklahoma City 50 years ago this month.
Highlights include a salute by the Oklahoma Historical Society at 9 a.m. at the Oklahoma History Center on Tuesday, Aug. 19, the anniversary of the day youth trekked to Katz Drug Store downtown for the first sit-in. Clara Luper and most of the original participants are anticipated to attend.
In addition to other events, a homecoming for sit-in participants is scheduled at the Freedom Center, 2609 N. Martin Luther King, on Friday, Aug. 22. On Saturday, Aug. 23, a 10 a.m. parade starting from Leroy Pitts Park and an open house at the center will continue the festivities, which will conclude with a 6:30 p.m. dinner at Fifth Street Baptist Church.
Marilyn Luper Hildreth, daughter of Clara, is helping plan the celebrations, hoping participants from the nearly six years of sit-ins come to take part and share their experiences.
“Nobody can tell a story better than the people who were actually there,” she said.
For more information, call 843-0811. “Emily Jerman