Thursday, June 9, 2011

Remembering A Civil Rights Icon: You Had To Have Known Clara Luper Back In The Day To Get It

Clara Luper: 1923-2011

By Mike McCarville

You had to have known Clara Luper back in the day to get it.

Fifty years ago, she was the face of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City. As a reporter for The Daily Oklahoman-Oklahoma City Times, I photographed that face for the first time with a Polaroid camera (the first, and likely the last, Polaroid photo to appear in the Times) during a downtown sit-in. By then, she'd been at it for three or four years, leading sit-ins, and the police officers there to keep the peace knew her well.

I didn't, at the time.

As a child of the South, I grew up with "White Only" and "No Coloreds" signs everywhere. My exposure to treatment of blacks was limited to my parents' contact with our maid, also named Clara. She was "Miss Clara" to me in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

And Clara Luper became "Mrs. Luper" to me; it never occurred to me to call her "Clara" until I once slipped and called her that during my KTOK show when we'd had a particularly animated conversation about those days.

My first impression of her in 1962 was that she was pushy; arrogant probably also came to mind.

Abundantly clear was that she was in charge. She spoke, those with her acted. Or did not.

She was defiant, demanding, her face appearing chiseled from steel.

I saw that look many times in the ensuing years, sometimes during demonstrations, other times in interviews.

As integration took hold in Oklahoma City, the confrontations and demonstrations grew less frequent and then a lot of years passed before I saw her again.

She remembered me, however, and we had a long conversation. There was no small talk. Clara Luper didn't do small talk. Not with me, anyway, nor with anyone else that I observed.

Today, there's an outpouring of kind comments about Clara Luper's life and I'm certain there are some out there, too young to remember what it was like in 1962, who will wonder what all the fuss is about.

You had to have known Clara Luper back in the day to get it. 

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