Born in rural Okfuskee County, Oklahoma on 3 May 1932, Clara Luper's interaction with segregation in schools--a condition she would help defeat in her native state--began early. After graduating from a segregated high school in nearby Grayson, Oklahoma, Luper graduated from Langston University, a segregated college in central Oklahoma, in 1944 with a B.A. in mathematics with a minor in history. Seven years later she completed a Master’s degree in secondary education and history at the University of Oklahoma where she encountered separate bathrooms and a segregated cafeteria.
With the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public education through Brown v. Board of Education, Luper found herself among the first individuals involved in the integration of the Oklahoma City schools when, as a teacher, she transferred from the all black Dungee High School to Northwest Classen High School, an all white school. On her first day she was greeted by racial slurs from students and teachers trying to taunt her, individuals to whom Luper refused to bow. She retired from teaching while at John Marshall High School in 1989.
What Luper is most remembered for in Oklahoma, however, is her role in sit-in campaigns that brought about the integration of the Katz Drug Store chain. On 19 August 1958, Luper and members of the local NAACP Youth Council were arrested after refusing to leave the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City when the lunch counter refused to serve them. Two days later Katz announced their intention to integrate all thirty-eight of their locations in Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri.
That success touched off an expanded sit-in movement directed at the restaurants throughout downtown Oklahoma City. Starting in August 1960, Luper was at the forefront of the movement through regular radio broadcasts as hundreds of protestors demonstrated for almost four years. On 2 June 1964 the Oklahoma City Council stepped in to resolve problems with those restaurants still resisting integration. In the six years dating back to her initial sit-in at Katz, Luper was arrested 26 times in helping integrate downtown Oklahoma City.
Summing up Clara Luper's impact on the history of the state, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele commented, "Through her actions, she helped lead Oklahoma and the nation forward by showing courage and courtesy simultaneously, often in the face of unpleasant opposition."
After she passed away at her home in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, the city's mayor, Mick Cornett, ordered all flags on city property flown at half staff in her honor.