by Patrick B. McGuigan
Funeral services for Clara Luper of Oklahoma City will be held Friday, June 17 at the Cox Center. A morning of tribute and farewell will commence 10 a.m., at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, proceeding from there in motorcade to the downtown convention facility, where formal services, a celebration of her life, will begin at 11 a.m.
Luper’s mortal remains will be buried at Hillcrest Memory Gardens. Later on Friday, family and friends will gather to remember her at Fifth Street Baptist.
The farewell to Mrs. Luper will actually begin Wednesday, June 15 at Fairview Baptist Church (1700 N.E. 7th), with a public wake from 6 to 8 p.m. She will lie in repose at the state Capitol on Thursday, June 16 from Noon until 4 p.m.
U.S. Rep. James Lankford last week characterized Luper’s death as a “home-going” – an Evangelical Christian expression of confidence about the destination of all those who live in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The reflection of the young conservative about Luper was one indication of the effect she had on generations of Oklahomans and Americans during her career as an educator and an activist.
The New York Times, in a June 11 online obituary (appearing in the newspaper’s June 12 print edition), described Luper as “a seminal figure in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.”
Luper 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 recent years, her storied career and legacy steadily gained recognition and honor, including in front page restrospectives about the sit-ins printed in The City Sentinel.
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 in history. She taught in Oklahoma City until 1991.
Luper had two daughters (Marilyn and Chelle) and a son (Calvin) who carry on her passion for justice. Her husband Bert preceded her into Eternity. At the time of her passing, Clara had five grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
Here in Oklahoma City, the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, devoted most of page one to news of her death last week. Placement of the story was itself a form of 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 most impressive legacy, perhaps, was an ability to influence and persuade even those who sometimes disagreed with her tactics or style. Indeed, in the news obituary in The Oklahoman, Luper was noted for “a calming, practical influence for cooperation in race relations.”
On some occasions in the 1990s, Mr. Gaylord began meetings with members of his editorial page staff at the state’s largest newspaper by saying, with a slight smile, “Clara called me.” That brief comment served as preface to an assignment for an editorial or commentary on some matter of importance in the state’s capital city, and occasionally on matters of national significance.
In 2002, Gaylord supported lasting honors to Luper, including a scholarship program bearing her name at Oklahoma City University.
Tributes to Luper began immediately after news of her passing circulated in Oklahoma City, and included high praise from elected officials like Governor Mary Fallin, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, state Superintendent Janet Barresi, state Reps. Anastasia Pittman and Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City, and Jabar Shumate of Tulsa. Others who commented soon after her passing included OCU President Robert Henry, Nathaniel Batchelder of The Peace House.
One visible legacy will be the “Clara Luper Corridor” that runs along North 23rd Street in Oklahoma City, from Broadway Avenue east through the historic heart of the black community. In Luper’s honor, by order of Mayor Mick Cornett, flags in Oklahoma City flew at half mast until sunset on Friday, June 10.
Note: Patrick B. McGuigan was editor of the editorial page at The Oklahoman from 1995 to 2002.