Profile: Clara Luper (1923-2011)

Clara Shepard Luper (born Clara Mae Shepard) was a civic leader, retired schoolteacher, and a pioneering leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. She is best known for her leadership role in the 1958 Oklahoma City sit-in movement, as she, her young son and daughter, and numerous young members of the NAACP Youth Council successfully conducted nonviolent sit-in protests of downtown drugstore lunch-counters, which overturned their policies of segregation. The Clara Luper Corridor is a streetscape and civic beautification project from the Oklahoma Capitol area east to northeast Oklahoma City and was announced by Governor Brad Henry.

Luper continued desegregating hundreds of establishments in Oklahoma and was active on the national level during the 1960s movements.

Early life and education

Clara Shepard Luper was born in 1923 in rural Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. Her father, Ezell Shepard, was a World War I veteran and laborer. Her mother, Isabell Shepard, worked as a laundress. Young Clara was raised in Hoffman, Oklahoma. She went to high school in the all-black town of Grayson, Oklahoma, and attended college at Langston University where, in 1944, she received a B.A. in mathematics with a minor in history. In 1950, Luper became the first African American student in the graduate history program at the University of Oklahoma. She received an M.A. in History Education from the university in 1951.

Civil rights activism

Luper became the advisor for the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council in 1957 while working as a history teacher at Dunjee High School in Spencer, Oklahoma. The message and success of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Montgomery Bus Boycott influenced her activism, along with personal tragedies related to segregation. With the Youth Council, she wrote and staged a play entitled Brother President about King’s philosophy of nonviolence. In 1958, she was invited to bring the Oklahoma City Youth Council to perform Brother President for the NAACP in New York City.

The trip to and from New York was a formative experience for Youth Council members. The trip showed her students that there were places where segregation did not thrive. After their trip to New York, the students felt that they could not go back to segregation after experiencing what equality provides. On their return to Oklahoma, the Youth Council voted to initiate a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to end segregation in Oklahoma City. This marked the group’s decision to go into Katz Drug Store to perform their first sit-in.

From 1958 to 1964 Luper mentored the members of the NAACP Youth Council during its campaign to end the segregation of public accommodations through sit-ins, protests, and boycotts.

Later life and death

In 1972, Clara Luper ran unsuccessfully for election to the United States Senate. When asked by the press if she, a black woman, could 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.”

Luper taught American history for 41 years, beginning at Dunjee High School and working at other Oklahoma City schools; she retired from John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City in 1991

During the span of 1960 until 1980, Luper hosted a radio talk show, the Clara Luper Show, with her son. They would often discuss the civil rights and the people that were instrumental.

Luper’s student was influenced by her civil rights success that they strived against segregation themselves. One of her students was the first African American chief of police in Oklahoma City. Another said she was the reason he went to become a US Army Colonel.

The Clara Luper Corridor, a multimillion-dollar two-mile streetscape project connecting the Oklahoma State Capitol complex with the historically African-American area of Northeast Oklahoma City, began construction in 2005. It was named to commemorate her civil rights legacy.

Luper received hundreds of awards and was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Afro-American Hall of Fame, among others.

The Clara Luper Scholarship, a scholarship given by Oklahoma City University, has been awarded to a number of students every year. The scholarship is geared toward students of diverse backgrounds who have financial needs. The scholarship is meant to emphasize values that Clara Luper stood for, including community service, leadership, and education.

Luper died of natural causes on June 8, 2011. She is survived by her three children, Calvin, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, and Chelle Marie. Luper is also survived by a sister, Oneita Brown; five grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

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