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‘It ignited the country’


A milestone in the civil rights movement took place in OKC 55 years ago this week with the drugstore sit-ins.

Dawn Watson August 28th, 2013

Fifty-five years ago this month, Ayanna Najuma took a seat and helped start a movement that transformed Oklahoma City and the country.

The 7-year-old sat beside 12 other members of the NAACP Youth Council at the lunch counter of a downtown Katz Drug Store, 200 W. Main St. and Robinson Ave., on Aug. 20, 1958.

They waited to be served. “A lot of kids’ parents wouldn’t let them go. When I look back on it, it was a pretty courageous thing to do, not necessarily for me as a little kid, but for my parents,” Najuma recalled. “It was an interesting time. I really value my life experiences. I look back and I’m glad I was part of history.”

After two days of sit-ins, Katz management relented and served the black students, but the protesters weren’t done. They continued under the leadership of their director, Clara Luper, to conduct nonviolent demonstrations across Oklahoma City. In 1959, the youth council reported its progress at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People annual conference.

“When they did, it ignited the whole country. We know that because we have the minutes of that meeting,” said Bruce Fisher, administrative program officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society.


‘To make a change’
Before long, more joined the group’s efforts, which continued throughout the 1960s. The students endured insults and being spit upon. A heckler even let a trained monkey loose on the young people. Joyce A. Henderson, one of Luper’s students at Dunjee High School, became the song leader for the protesters.

“It was probably more part of the norm for her (Luper’s) students to be involved than not,” Henderson said.

“She developed you. To be a failure was not an option. As a result of being under her tutelage, the sky was the limit for me.”

Clara Luper
BY: Shannon Cornman
Each Saturday, the group gathered to prepare at Calvary Baptist Church in the Deep Deuce area.

“That would set the tone for the sit-in. We would get instructions on how to conduct ourselves because the one thing we couldn’t be was violent. We would walk from Cavalry singing freedom songs,” Henderson said. “I believe we led the way for showing others how to do it. We were leaders and didn’t know it at the time.”

Bill Clifford was the first white man to protest with the NAACP after Calvin Luper, Clara’s son, spoke to his church youth group. Clifford, who was 23 at the time, said he felt that joining was the right thing to do.

“They were so warm and welcoming that I went down with them that day,” Clifford said. “I feel that it was a necessary change.”

Julia Clifford first learned of her father’s involvement in the sit-in movement when she asked him about his most significant moments in life.

“He started talking about sit-ins,” Julia Clifford said. “Dad didn’t talk about it very much. He’s a doer. He said it shaped his life. The more I learned about it, the more I realized it was a bigger story than I thought.”

That conversation prompted Julia Clifford to start working in 2007 on a documentary with the working title The Face of the Change, telling the story of children in the civil rights movement. The independent film is now being edited.

“It was kids who wanted to make a change. People were less likely to get violent with a child,” she said. “Even in the Deep South, the children were very involved.”


Preserving history
Those children and others in the state’s civil rights movement will be featured in a reworking of the lunch counter sit-in exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center. In addition to showcasing the civil rights work of Luper, the exhibit — set to open in December — will tell the story of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first black woman to attend law school at the University of Oklahoma.

Henderson and Najuma said they don’t want others to forget the courage, tenacity and commitment exemplified by the sit-ins and the civil rights movement.

“I tell people all the time that we cannot take anything for granted,” Henderson said.

Najuma said the country has made a lot of progress but issues have changed. She doesn’t want young people to become complacent.

“I don’t think young people know how important their voice can be,” she said.

 
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