As I ventured into my American history class the first day of my sophomore year, I was unaware that I was opening a door to a school-yearlong experience that would forever change my perspectives on the world.
Sure, my fellow classmates and I were vaguely aware that Ms. Luper had some significance to our state’s history; after all, she was the only teacher in our high school mentioned in our Oklahoma history textbooks from the previous year. Growing up post-segregation in integrated schools, though, we were largely oblivious to the struggles of the preceding decades. The importance of her contribution to the annals of Oklahoma and American history were foreign to many of us.
The civil rights icon died Wednesday at age 88.
Clara Shepard Luper was born on May 3, 1923, in Okfuskee County and was raised in Hoffman, Okla., in Okmulgee County. She rose to national prominence on Aug. 20, 1958, when she, as the sponsor of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, led three adult chaperones and 14 Youth Council members in a peaceful sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in segregated downtown Oklahoma City. Although the drugstore initially refused to serve Luper’s entourage at the hitherto all-white lunch counter, Katz capitulated after several days of sit-ins, agreeing to integrate its 38 lunch counters in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.
During the following six years, Luper led similar peaceful protests at numerous area establishments, including Veazey Drug Store, S.H. Kress and Company, Green’s and John A. Brown Department Store. Her leadership in the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City inspired similar nonviolent acts of civil disobedience around the country and earned her the title among many as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
While Luper’s contributions to civil rights are well-known, documented in books, articles and even an exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center, her contributions as a lifelong educator are lesser-known. Luper received her bachelor’s in mathematics with a minor in history from Langston University in 1944, and a master’s in history education from the University of Oklahoma, which she helped integrate, in 1951. During the next 40 years, until her retirement in 1991, Luper taught history and public relations first at Dunjee High School in Spencer, then at Classen and John Marshall high schools in Oklahoma City.
Much as her accomplishments as a civil rights leader are too numerous to list, it would be impossible to do justice to her contributions to the education of Oklahoma City’s youth. Several personal anecdotes, though, may provide a window into the experience.
On that August day in 1986 when I first formally encountered Ms. Luper, she began our first day of class by having all students rise and repeat after her, “Teach me, Ms. Luper,” “I can learn,” and “I am somebody.” Much like an old-time revival, she had all students convinced by the end of that first class of our individual importance, and that the largest barrier in our pathway to success was our own inhibitions. She continued to instill these values in us throughout the remainder of the school year.
Luper organized the class to be as interactive as possible, modeling it after the executive branch of the U.S. government. We had an elected president, vice president and other executive branch officials, and each class, we had to deliver a “report” to the president on a current event or other topic of relevance. In so doing, Ms. Luper taught us about civics, about preparedness, how to be effective public speakers, and that democracy demanded engagement by all of its citizens. In the process, she managed to teach us American history and how we are all actors in it.
Thanks to the advent of modern technology and social networking, I have been able to reconnect with many former classmates, most of whom I have not seen since graduating from high school over 20 years ago. While it is often difficult to find commonality between many of these individuals on issues of the day, one thing we all continue to agree upon is that Clara Luper was one of the best, if not the best, teacher we ever had.
In 1972, while running for the U.S. Senate, Luper was asked if she could adequately represent white people. She responded, “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.”
While she was denied the opportunity to demonstrate this in the U.S. Senate, she embodied this very message in her classroom each day. Those of us that were fortunate enough to have been one of her students, whether white, black, red, yellow, brown, or polka-dot, all learned that we are, indeed, somebody and that we can learn if we are willing to be taught. Thank you, Ms. Luper.
Fagin, an Oklahoma City resident, is a visiting assistant professor at Oklahoma State University and an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City Community College.