Clara Mae Shepard
May 3, 1923
|Died||June 8, 2011 (aged 88)|
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
|Occupation||Civic leader, school teacher, activist|
Clara Shepard Luper (born Clara Mae Shepard May 3, 1923 – June 8, 2011) 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.
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.
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.
During her start as a civil rights leader for the NAACP Youth Council, she had plans to desegregate the restaurants and diners in Oklahoma. Her first target was Katz Drug Store, a segregated supermarket that had lunch counters. Before starting the sit-in, Luper had attempted to communicate with the owners by sending mails. She sent mail continuously to Katz but was ignored for 15 months. Finally, she agreed that enough time and effort was given to reach out, it was time to act. On Tuesday afternoon, August 19, 1958, Luper, her son and daughter, and a group of Youth Council members entered the segregated Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and asked to be served. They were refused service, and the police were called. However, the group was not arrested, though they were met with increasing hostility and even threatened.While in the sit-in, she and her student waited from the time the shop opens until it closes. During this time, her students would bring out their books and study. Clara Luper was a civil rights activist, but she was a teacher first . Two days later, Katz corporate management in Kansas City desegregated its lunch counters in three states.
The 1958 Katz Drug Store sit-in had been suggested by Luper's eight-year-old daughter  and occurred a year and a half before the February 1, 1960, Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins. It was the first and longest sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement.
The success of Civil Disobedience in Oklahoma could also be attributed to the Lieutenant of the Police force at the time, Bill Percer. Percer and Luper had a silent agreement that, he and his men would not harm her students if they practiced non-violence. Luper’s student also provided an advantage to her cause. The fact that the protestors were mainly schoolchildren, it would be less likely that the sit-in would end in violence such as the one in Greensboro. The tactics, the students, and the police all had a major part in allowing the desegregation of Oklahoma to not end in violence.
From 1958 to 1964 Clara Luper was a major leader of the fight to end segregation in Oklahoma. She led the campaigns to gain equal banking rights, employment opportunities, open housing, and voting rights. Along with the NAACP Youth Council, she personally integrated hundreds of restaurants, cafes, theaters, hotels, and churches, including such notable Oklahoma City establishments as the Split-T drive-in and the Skirvin Hotel. She served on Governor J. Howard Edmondson’s Committee on Human Relations.
Luper was a prominent figure in the national Civil Rights Movement. She was active in the NAACP and attended the association’s annual conference every year with the Oklahoma City Youth Council. She took part in the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. She also took part in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches where she received a deep cut in her leg on "Bloody Sunday" when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police with tear gas and billy clubs.
After 1964 Luper remained an important community figure as an activist, educator, and stalwart NAACP supporter. In these years, she expanded the range of her concerns to include advocacy for educational, economic, and political equality. In 1968, she was one of a handful of African American teachers hired to teach at Oklahoma City's Northwest Classen High School as part of the highly controversial court ordered school desegregation plan implemented that year. She was later reassigned to John Marshall High School (Oklahoma) where she continued to teach history and media studies.
In August 1969, Luper was the spokesperson for striking sanitation workers in Oklahoma City. The sanitation workers sought a shorter work week, pay raises, and new grievance procedures. She supported the strike by allowing the workers to use the NAACP Youth Council’s Freedom Center in Oklahoma. The workers would use the Freedom Center to plan meetings and strikes. Clara, on the other hand, had been working to raise money to help these workers. She would often bring food to the Freedom Center for the workers to eat. The Oklahoma City sanitation strike began on August 19 and ended on November 7, 1969.
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 1989.
During the span of 1960 until 1980, Luper hosted a radio talk show, Clara Luper Show, with her son. They would often discuss about 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.
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.
Clara Luper’s book Behold The Walls (1979) is an acclaimed first-hand account of the campaign for civil rights in Oklahoma City during the 1960s.