Black Heritage Month offers events, cultural remembrance

The struggles of an entire race will be commemorated during the annual Black Heritage Month this February. The struggle for equality and acceptance laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement a half century ago. Even today, the struggle continues.

The release of the new film Selma and recent tragic events in our nation’s streets are stark reminders of how far we have come as a country and how much work is yet to be done.

Generations remember the often-horrific images that flickered across black-and-white televisions back in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet younger generations are just learning of the sacrifices that were made not long ago.

And Oklahoma played a unique role in the civil rights movement.

Early history

“African-Americans during that era were relegated to second-class citizens,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of Oklahoma Historical Society. “By the 1950s, laws were changing in Oklahoma and throughout the country, but changing attitudes and changing hearts was lagging behind.”

Slavery existed until 1866 in what is now Oklahoma, said Blackburn. The Indian tribes were required by the federal government to provide land to their former slaves. As a result, more than 30 all-black towns were formed. The migration of blacks from the old South also contributed to Oklahoma’s growing population during the early part of the 20th century.

Oklahoma leader

By midcentury, the civil rights movement had reached Oklahoma. Clara Luper was an Oklahoma City teacher who led the charge, and she came to be known as the mother of the state’s civil rights fight.

“During the ’50s and ’60s, sacrifices were made by African-Americans,” Blackburn said. “Clara Luper risked her own safety on many occasions.”

Luper would talk to the chief of police and tell him what they planned to do, but she was always quick to point out that any demonstration would be peaceful and nonviolent. Many segments of the white population also saw the injustices.

“Local businessman Jackie Cooper, who now owns a BMW dealership, was a good friend of Clara Luper. He owned a successful Oldsmobile dealership at the time, and their friendship dated back to the 1950s. Jackie was very instrumental in helping raise the consciousness of people in the white community,” Blackburn said.

A number of demonstrations took place in Oklahoma, including a famous lunch counter sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City in August 1958. Luper and some of her students seated themselves at the counter, where service was promptly refused. They returned day after day until Katz management relented and white customers offered to buy meals for the polite young black students. Similar demonstrations occurred at the John A. Brown department store in the summer of 1958 and a civil rights march on N. Shartel Avenue on April 3, 1965.

Blackburn was a teenager in the ’60s and experienced the changes firsthand.

“Here it is some 50 years later and injustices still need to be corrected,” Blackburn said. “We no longer have sit-ins at lunch counters because we have progressed beyond that. But hundreds of years of denying people their place in the sun will not change overnight, or even in 50 years.”

Besides protecting existing laws and rights, Blackburn said the key is building bridges.

“But what can we do to change our own hearts and rid ourselves of racism? We need to make sure we give families equal access to early childhood education, higher education and equal employment. Change comes from our elected officials, our lawmakers and the voters,” he said.

Racism has diminished but still exists in society today.

“It may not be as blatant as it once was, but it still exists,” Blackburn said. “But we can change history at the individual level by changing our hearts and attitudes.”

Print headline: Heritage, The Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago, but racism still persists in Oklahoma.

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