By Nasreen Iqbal
Special to The City Sentinel
OKLAHOMA CITY – Nearly 350 people gathered in the Oklahoma History Center the evening of February 7 to witness the first viewing of the Julia Clifford documentary, :Children of the Civil Rights.”
The documentary tells the story of fourteen children who participated in sit-ins in Oklahoma City restaurants from 1958 until the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation in schools and public places nationwide in 1964.
Former Oklahoma City schoolteacher and civil rights activist, Clara Luper, led the children, all below the age of eighteen, to participate in peaceful protests known as “sit-ins” at restaurants that refused to serve African Americans in Oklahoma City. The children were Luper’s classroom students and members of the NAACP Youth Council.
Richard Brown, Elmer Edwards, Ayanna Najuma, Lana Pogue, Areda Tolliver, Calvin Luper, Marilyn Luper, Portwood Williams Jr., Lynzetta Jones, Gwendolyn Fuller, Alma Faye Posey, Barbara Posey, Goldie Battle and Betty Germany not only told their stories on camera but many watched the documentary with the crowd on at the event, and participated in a question and answer session after the show.
“No one knew that a group of Oklahoma City kids were heroes, not even the kids themselves,” Clifford said.
Clifford, an accountant’s assistant and avid painter, was inspired to create the documentary after hearing her fathers tale of being one of the first Caucasians to participate in the sit-ins with the children.
“It’s a story not many know but one that people need to know, especially today’s youth,” Clifford said of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City.
Luper and the children would meet at Calvary Baptist Church each Saturday before heading off to the sit-ins. At church, Mrs. Luper taught the children how to protest nonviolently.
“She told us that no matter what happened we shouldn’t respond in a violent way,” sit-in participant, Portwood Williams Jr. said. “A lot of that was understandable to us. We were raised Christian. We were taught to turn the other cheek; to love our enemies.”
Fellow sit-in participant, Joyce Henderson, describes the sit-ins in the documentary.
“We’d walk in and sit down and they would tell us ‘we can’t serve you here.’ We would just respond by saying ‘thank you, we’ll wait,” Henderson said.
The first sit in took place on August 19, 1958 at Katz Drug Store, previously located on the southwest corner of Main St. and Robinson Ave.
“Our parents were very reluctant to let us go. We tried to hide it from them at first,” Ayanna Najuma said with a chuckle. “I remember my mother calling Mrs. Luper and saying ‘my daughter better not get thrown into jail.’ And of course I did, a couple of times.”
Although the repercussions seemed extremely frightening to the children at first they eventually served their punishments with pride.
“We didn’t know we were making history,” Najuma said. “For us, it was an adventure. We knew we were doing something right and that alone felt good.”
The group received criticism, mockery, threats and jail time. But, Najuma said, the sit-ins never got violent.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t hate here, there was. But things never got violent here. This was one of the most peaceful states where sit-ins took place. Because of this great state we had one of the most peaceful civil rights movements in America.”
After six years, the childrens’ protests and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 successfully overturned policies of segregation across Oklahoma.
The crowd that gathered Saturday was a mixture of races, genders and generations.
Jo Davis attended the event and wants her children to see the documentary.
“They need to see this,” she said. “It’s a part of our history. They may hear or read a little bit about this in school but there is nothing like seeing it,” Davis said.
Original photos of the sit-ins were provided for the documentary by The Oklahoma Publishing Company.
The crowd gave a standing ovation before taking part in a questions and answer session with several sit-in participants.
“I don’t really have a question,” University of Central Oklahoma junior, Brandon Meadows, 21, said as he clasped his hands together and addressed the panel. “I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for everything.”
Clifford is currently working with the Oklahoma State Department of Education with the hope that Children of the Civil Rights will be shown in junior high social studies classes statewide. A second viewing of the documentary will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 21 at Cinemark Tinseltown, 6001 N. Martin Luther King Ave. in Oklahoma City.
Editor’s Note: Nasreen Iqbal is an account coordinator at Jones PR Inc. and a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 405-919-7678.