60th Anniversary of OKC Sit-Ins
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first sit-in in Oklahoma. It was at the Katz Drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City on August 19, 1958. The story of this sit-in is one of my favorites in state history. Clara Luper, the famous Oklahoma civil rights leader, told about it in “Oklahoma Memories,” a book of oral history edited by Anne Hodges Morgan and Rennard Strickland.
Here’s the story: In 1957 Luper was teaching American history at Dunjee High School in Spencer. She wrote a play called “Brother President,” the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. The play was performed by the local NAACP Youth Council, which Luper had organized and sponsored. The performance led to an invitation for Luper and her students to perform in New York City. On the trip to New York the next year, the students ate lunch at an integrated lunch counter in St. Louis. On the way back through southern states they had to buy paper sack lunches because they couldn’t be served in the restaurants.
When they got home, the group wanted to do something to end segregation in Oklahoma City. They contacted businesses and the city council and wrote letters to churches—without any response. At a Sunday afternoon meeting they discussed what to do next. A young woman spoke up, “I move that we go down to Katz Drug Store and sit down and drink a coke.” The motion was seconded and passed unanimously. They wanted to go right then. They turned to Ms. Luper, because she was their Youth Advisor.
She remembered the moment, “I thought about my father who had died in 1957… and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, ‘Someday will be real soon,’ as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, ‘Yes, tonight is the night.'”
They walked into the drugstore on that hot August evening and ordered 13 cokes. At the counter. The waitress called the manager. He asked them to leave. They politely refused. He called the police. There was pushing and shoving and rude insults but the students were unmoved. Finally they decided to leave and come back the next day. Dozens of students joined in the next day and the next. That was all it took. Luper said, “In two days, the walls had fallen.” Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City and at its 38 other stores in four states would serve all people regardless of race, creed, or color.
This was two years before the famous sit-in in Greensboro, South Carolina. The African-American History Museum in Washington D.C., has the Greensboro lunch counter on display, but Clara Luper and her NAACP Youth Council made history here first.
Several local events are planned to celebrate today’s anniversary. Go to http://www.okhistory.org/calendar/event/anniversary/ for more information and a contact number for questions.
The inspiring words from Clara Luper’s story have stayed with me from the first time I read them. “When is someday?” Someday can be today. This election year is unlike any other in our lifetime. There are still fights to be won, rights to be protected, people to be heard. Drew and I hope you will join in our campaign to bring change to our state. Today.