Sitting In and Standing Strong: a proFile of Activist-Educator Clara Luper

Oklahoma educator Clara Luper (1923-2011) was a history teacher who empowered a generation of history makers. Widely recognized as the “Mother of Civil Rights” in her home state, Luper continues to be a standout example of how activism and education can go hand-in-hand.

Luper’s decades of work and service defy summary. Besides being an NAACP leader who marched, demonstrated and was arrested no less than 26 times for the cause, she put in 41 years of teaching in Oklahoma public schools, hosted a radio talk show for 20 years, founded a magazine that’s still in print and made a run for US Senate. Even this tiny snapshot of her legendary career suggests someone who was tireless and enterprising, a person who kept the movement moving.

As Luper explained in a 2008 television interview: “When you start behind in a race, you have to run twice as fast as other people in order to catch up. What kept me moving? I had to move. I came from a family that believed in something that was bigger than themselves. My family believed in the sun when it didn’t shine and the rain when it didn’t fall. They believed in a God that they had never seen, and they believed that someday we would be able to stand and stand strong.”

Though they had very little in the way of formal schooling themselves, her family also believed in education and instilled in Luper a drive to learn. She bussed several miles so that she could attend high school, earned a college degree in mathematics and enrolled as the first African-American master’s student in the University of Oklahoma’s graduate program in history.

In a 1980 interview with the Oklahoma Historical Society, Luper recalled how her very earliest lessons were taught by her grandmother. Whenever she had reached the limits of her knowledge, she would tell her granddaughter, “Go learn something else, and I’ll bake you a cookie.” Her grandma’s strategy was not so different from the philosophies Luper would later adopt as an educator. If her grandma helped turn the inquisitive, cookie-loving young Clara into an ambitious auto-didact, the grown-up Luper wanted to encourage the same in her own students, fostering an environment of self-discipline, self-understanding, self-worth and self-empowerment that extended far beyond any classroom walls.

Nowhere are the deep ties between Luper’s teaching and activism more visible than in the event that put her on the map as a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.

Bios of Luper tend to sum up her noteworthiness by identifying her as the leader of a hallmark sit-in that helped launch the movement nationally and desegregate a host of businesses and institutions. However, to say she “led” that instrumental 1958 sit-in at Katz Drugstore is perhaps a disservice to the kind of leader she was. In fact, what’s most remarkable about this game-changing demonstration was how it was spontaneously prompted and led by school-age activists – the members of Oklahoma City’s NAACP Youth Council that Luper advised. Her teaching had effectively made them all into budding leaders, emboldened to create change for themselves.

The story of the sit-in began with a hands-on lesson in Black History. In 1957, Luper had taken a group of young people to New York City to perform “Brother President,” a play she had written about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., at a Rally for Freedom Fighters. Their stay at The Hudson Hotel gave the young performers a chance to experience life outside the rule of Jim Crow. Everything the Youth Council members saw along the way – from the stirring rally to a stop at Arlington Cemetery, where the black and white soldiers who fought in segregated regimens in WWII were buried together – helped develop a shared moral consciousness. They came home with a concrete new goal: to integrate public spaces. When months of diplomatic requests failed to make a difference, the young people were moved to take direct action.

On August 19, 1958, Clara accompanied 12 children, ages 6 to 17, as they (without any parental permission) walked into a popular drug store, sat down at the whites-only food counter and tried to order a round of Cokes. The young protestors were quickly surrounded by police and white customers. They faced a barrage of abuse, even from people they had known for years. But Luper’s training had prepared them for everything from insults to drinks thrown in their faces. Not only did they stay seated, on their third visit, they were served. That small victory set off a wave of change. By the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act came to pass, Luper and her young activists had already successfully pushed for the integration of more than 50 of the establishments they targeted.

Protest is a lesson in itself, but Luper also showed young people that educating yourself could be a political act. She encouraged them to turn sit-ins into read-ins. Student protestors brought along books to match their norm-defying aspirations, going on to become principals, lawyers and brain surgeons.

In the classroom, Luper likewise saw her primary role as being a facilitator for the development of each student’s unique potential, not a “distributor of a product.” Later in her career, she formally dubbed this approach her “Diamond Philosophy” of education. At its core was the belief that all students – regardless of race, class, gender, creed, ability or any other markers of difference – are diamonds. “Hidden talents and dreams,” she wrote, “can only be discovered with special care and digging.” She saw it as her teacherly duty to protect and shine the diamonds while admiring their “individual sparkle.”

Luper knew that giving students an equal chance to thrive required her to cultivate an ethos of “democratic pluralism” and “mutual respect” in her classroom. It also meant making an intervention in traditional curricula. As a historian, she helped rethink and expand her field beyond the myopic focus on great white men. “The more you know about women, the more you know about blacks, the more you now about Indians,” she said, “the better off you are.” She helped fill the gap in public education by organizing Black History Week celebrations, creating “Clara’s Calendar” to mark the dates of important anniversaries in African-American history and even adapting her famous play on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life into a movie so that it could reach wider audiences.

Though she was recognized with hundreds of awards during her lifetime and honored with many tributes (including a department at the University of Oklahoma and a street near the Oklahoma Capitol that bear her name), Luper’s own story has yet to reach the wider audience it deserves. Unfortunately, telling that story couldn’t be more relevant. Many see the election of President Trump as a symptom of a social backlash that is threatening the legacy of the civil rights movement to which Clara Luper and so many others dedicated their lives. The NAACP are warning about a recent rise in hate crimes, a disproportionate number of African Americans (one in five) live below the poverty line and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is continuing the struggle to confront institutionalized violence and the well-known inequities in the U.S.’s criminal justice system. Educators who want to be part of the answer should take heart in Luper’s example and make activism a mainstay of their lesson plans.