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Clara Luper Remembered in Oklahoma City (Jun 17, 2011)
For Clara Luper, the injustice of a segregated Oklahoma could not stand… even though her parents had raised her to “know her place.”

"When you have been told that you have a certain place in our society, my place was where I belonged," Luper told Dick Pryor on OETA's "A Conversation With" program.

Luper, who was born in 1923 in Okfuskee County, would eventually earn the respect of a state and the right to eat wherever she wanted, but not before being arrested 26 times in civil rights protests. Luper told OETA the evidence of segregation was around each corner.

"Every time I would pace by a restaurant and see other people eating, in my mind [I thought] 'Why can't my kids eat there?'  And I got no answers," Luper said.  "We tried everything else, let's try non-violence.  It was as if God has spoken to us: 'Don't quit now, keep on.'"

Luper became the leader of the Oklahoma City chapter of the NAACP Youth Council in 1957. A year later, she led three adult chaperones and 14 young people to the lunch counter, knowing there might be trouble.

"I went along with them because if anything happened to my students, I wanted it to happen to me," Luper said.  "But the people didn't really care.  We kept trying day in and day out until the walls came tumbling down."

The group was refused service, but also resisted leaving the lunch counter. That sit-in lasted several days before the store agreed to integrate its service in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. While this protest wasn’t the first of its kind in the nation, the Oklahoma History Center’s Bruce Fisher says it was groundbreaking.

It forced a major, regional chain store to make a change in their policy," Fisher said.  "So it had the first huge impact on changing the culture."

Over the next six years, Luper and her group would effectively desegregate every restaurant in Oklahoma City. Fisher says Oklahomans must remember the struggle and the change that came because of Luper’s life and her actions.

"Too many kids today have no idea that before the actions of Miss Luper and the students of the sit-in movement, they wouldn't be able to go into a McDonald's today," Fisher said.  "They can't relate to Katz Drug Store, but they can certainly relate to McDonald's.  When I do tours at the History Center, and I talk to them about what it must have been like for those young students to attempt to integrate those lunch counters, I say 'Imagine what it would be like today if someone told you today that you couldn't go to McDonald's."

While Clara Luper will always be linked to lunch counter protests across Oklahoma City, she also ran for the U-S Senate, worked on voter registration drives and even has a state highway named after her. But for her, the legacy she leaves is simple.

"I think my legacy would be one of loving everybody," Luper said.  "My dream is to live in a society where love is the key."

Clara Luper is survived by two daughters and a son. Funeral services are pending.

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