Aug. 19, 1958

Credit: Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Inspired by the success in Wichita, Kansas, the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City, led by Clara Luper, a high school history teacher, began sit-ins to challenge the all-white lunch counters. 

Luper had spent a lifetime fighting segregation. When she attended the University of Oklahoma, she encountered separate restrooms, separation in the classrooms, separate sections in the cafeteria. 

“In one class a professor told me he had never taught a n—– and had never wanted to,” she recalled. “I moved that wall by staying in his class and working so hard that at the end of the school term, he confessed his sins.” 

On that day in 1958, she led the students into the Katz drugstore, where they sat down and ordered Cokes. They were refused service, and white customers jeered at them and called them names. Some coughed in their faces, and one child was knocked to the ground. 

Despite the abuse, they remained nonviolent, and days later, Katz desegregated lunch counters. The protests spread to other restaurants, theaters, hotels and churches. She went on to lead campaigns for Black Americans to have equal banking rights, voting rights, job opportunities and housing. 

In 1965, she joined the march in Selma, where Alabama troopers attacked the protesters with tear gas and billy clubs. She received a deep cut in her leg from the attack. A year later, she led a march to Lawton, Oklahoma, that ended with the city vowing to eliminate racial discrimination in all public places. In 1969, she worked with the striking sanitation workers, leading to better pay. In all, she was arrested 26 times for her civil rights protests. 

In 1972, she unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate. Asked by reporters if she could represent white people, she replied, “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.” 

Oklahoma City University gives scholarships each year in her name, aiding financially needy students. She wrote a memoir on the civil rights campaigns titled,Behold the Walls,” and when she died in 2011, flags flew at half-staff in her honor. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and a street in Oklahoma City now bears her name.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.