“Children of the Civil Rights” documentary reviews stirring stories from city’s transition, 1958-1964

OKLAHOMA CITY – One highlight of the upcoming observance of Black History Month in the Sooner State will be the February 7 premiere of “Children of the Civil Rights,” a documentary motion picture debuting at the Oklahoma History Center. The event is co-hosted by Respect Diversity and the Clifford family of Oklahoma City.

Bill Clifford, father of the documentary’s producer, said in reflections shared with CapitolBeatOK that when his daughter was educated, “Her Oklahoma history and social studies classes never mentioned the sit-ins in Oklahoma City, what caused them or their importance to the following generations. She only heard about this part of our history many years after graduation, informally, over a cup of coffee. It simply wasn’t included as part of the standard educational curriculum. …

“Julia’s curiosity led her to explore this part of Oklahoma City’s past on her own. In the process she met with and interviewed people who were personally involved in this effort – the young Black kids who demonstrated, members of the Oklahoma City downtown police detachment responsible for the public safety of all concerned and the news people who covered their stories.

“Her journey enabled her to compare the Oklahoma City experience with race relations in Birmingham, Atlanta and Selma through film footage and personal interviews with Julian Bond and Congressman John Lewis.”

Here in Oklahoma, some of the most impactful steps for civil rights were guided by the late Clara Luper, a feisty and effective activist known for combining blunt and pointed commentary with a notable ability to touch the hearts of powerful white leaders here in Oklahoma City.

A short essay circulated in preparation for the documentary premiere reported on the “long-term peaceful protests by a small group” of black children under the guidance of Mrs. Luper. 

At lunch counters around the downtown area, young members of the NAACP Youth Council would sit down and ask to be served. They were often told, “We don’t serve Negroes here!” The children habitually responded, “That’s alright; I’ll wait.”

Over six years, things changed slowly. Organizers of the new documentary said, in the essay provided to CapitolBeatOK, “It’s important to understand that the persistence and dignity shown by the kids in the Oklahoma City Civil Rights movement added to [a] spirit of collaboration, mutual respect and dialogue between this community and its police force. 

This is highly relevant to our national struggle of today.”

Lt. I.G. Purser of the city police department had a relationship of “communication and mutual respect” with Mrs. Luper, the NAACP youth advisor. Ultimately in the 1960s, after the Katz drugstore downtown ceased segregationist policies at the lunch counters, regular service was offered regardless of race to customers at the city’s lunch counters.

Presentation of the documentary “Children of the Civil Rights” will be held at the Oklahoma History Center, 2401 N. Laird Avenue in Oklahoma City on Saturday, February 7. Tickets cost $15, to include access to a “meet and greet” wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m. Attendees will be able to study silent auction items donated for the event. Funds raised at the premiere will help pay for legal rights to use archival photographs from national film houses and archival footage from a local television station.

A short presentation beginning at 6:40 p.m. will introduce the film, followed by the premiere, lasting about one hour.

After the film, at 8 p.m., veteran Oklahoma City journalist George Tomek will interview some of the film crew as well as those “children” of civil rights. The evening will conclude around 9 p.m.

The Oklahoma City Community Foundation supported the film project. The Oklahoma Publishing Company (which publishes The Oklahoman and for decades also published The Oklahoma City Times, an afternoon newspaper) donated archival photographs for the film, also granting permission for the photos to be used in publicity.

Information is available from Julia Clifford, telelphone 360-305-7837, email director@thecivilprojecdt.com. Other information, including the film trailer, can be accessed online at http://childrenofthecivilrightsfilm.com .

In initial publicity for the Feb. 7 event, organizers summed up the film’s story with these words: “No one knew that a group of Oklahoma City kids were heroes, not even the kids themselves.”

NOTE: McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK, publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, and a teacher at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school in Oklahoma City. The black and white photographs with this story are used for publicity for the forthcoming documentary, with permission of the Oklahoma Publishing Company.