COMMENTARY: OCU continues to honor Clara Luper’s legacy
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Published: 09-Sep-2014

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Clara Luper died in June 2011, tributes poured in from all over the world, including from the pages of The New York Times.

At the time of her passing, U.S. Rep. James Lankford, now seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn, characterized Luper's death as a “home-going.” That is an Evangelical expression of confidence about the destination of all those who live in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

That comment from the young conservative was one indication of the effect she had on generations of Oklahomans during her career as an educator and an activist.

Another manifestation of Luper’s noble legacy is seen in the candidacy of state Sen. Connie Johnson, a progressive African-American Democrat facing Lankford in the November general election.

In childhood, my parents spoke in admiring terms about Luper’s place in history. I grew to understand that for myself in high school, thanks to friendship with Vicki Miles, one of “Clara’s girls” in generations of activists.

The Times’ obit described Luper as “a seminal figure in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.” She first came to national prominence in August 1958, when she guided a small contingent of adults and members of the NAACP youth council who sat down at the soda fountain counter of the Katz department store in downtown Oklahoma City. 

The young people asked for Coca-Colas and were refused service. They returned every week (on Saturday mornings) until the Katz chain (then in 38 locations around middle America) announced it would integrate its stores and end racial segregation in business practices.

Roslyn M. Brock, national chairman of the NAACP, told Times' reporter Dennis Hevesi, “The actions that Ms. Luper and those youngsters took at the Katz Drug Store inspired the rank and file of the NAACP and activists on college campuses across the country.”

In her latter years, Luper’s storied career and legacy steadily gained recognition and honor, including in front page retrospectives about those sit-ins printed in The City Sentinel, a community newspaper in Oklahoma City.

Luper remained active in the civil rights movement throughout her life, often relating her joy at fulfillment of dreams her father had planted in her soul as a little girl. Her family said she was arrested 26 times.

A graduate of Langston University, Luper went on to study at the University of Oklahoma, where she was the first black admitted to the graduate program. 

She taught in Oklahoma City schools until 1991. 

Mrs. Luper’s two daughters (Marilyn and Chelle) and a son (Calvin) carried on her passion for justice. Several members of her family were present at a gala fundraiser, held last month at the Oklahoma History Center, where Mike Turpen raised money for the Luper Scholarship Fund at OCU.

Luper’s husband Bert preceded her into Eternity. When she passed, Clara had five grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

The state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, devoted most of page one to news of her death. That was appropriate. Placement of the story was tribute to Luper's influence on journalists and others in Oklahoma City, including the late E.L. Gaylord, publisher of The Oklahoman from 1974 until 2002.

Her legacy included an ability to influence and persuade even those who sometimes disagreed with her tactics or style. Indeed, the daily paper’s obituary
 included words E.L. could have written himself. Luper was praised for “a calming, practical influence for cooperation in race relations.”

On occasions during my 12 years working for him, Mr. Gaylord began meetings with members of his editorial staff by saying, with a slight smile, “Clara called me.”

On the first such occasion, I learned from editorial cartoonist Jim Lange that those three words would usually serve as preface to an assignment for an editorial or commentary on a matter of importance in the state and/or the nation.

It was no surprise that in 2002, Gaylord supported lasting honors to Luper, including the scholarship program bearing her name at Oklahoma City University.

From time to time, it is a form of social service to assure collective memories, wisdom from times past, won’t die.

As the years pass, her life story should often be recounted, as it was so beautifully in video and speeches at the recent OCU event raising new money for the Luper Scholars Program.
NOTE: Portions of this essay were posted previously on CapitolBeatOK, including here.

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