Civil Rights Movement History

Oklahoma City Sit-Ins & Boycotts (1958-1964)
Atlanta Police Murder of Joseph Jeter (Sept)
Youth March for Integrated Schools — Washington, DC (Oct)


Oklahoma City Sit-Ins & Boycotts (1958-1964)


Culturally and politically, Oklahoma is a "border-state" like Missouri or Kentucky. For Afro-Americans, that means Jim Crow segregation, but with less violence than "Mid-South" states like Tennessee, or "Deep-South" states like Alabama where racial oppression is stark, ruthless, and brutal. Though Oklahoma's "grandfather" clause was declared unconstitutional in 1915, the state's literacy test still bars most nonwhites from access to the ballot — and therefore from any share of political power.

Until the 1954 Brown decision, school segregation is in Oklahoma is mandatory. By 1958, public colleges have been desegregated, but full integration of public grade schools is still more dream than reality. A bewildering, crazy-quilt of state and local segregation laws continue to blanket the state. Under a 1937 Oklahoma law, for example, local communities are permitted to require separate white and Colored telephone booths — if they wish. In some places, segregation is rigidly imposed, elsewhere, particularly in the larger urban areas, laws might be laxly enforced so long as long-standing customs keep nonwhites "in their place."

Oklahoma City (OKC) is the state capital and its largest city. In 1958, Blacks make up bit less than 10% of the metropolitan area. They — along with small Native American and Spanish-speaking communities — continue to endure oppressive segregation customs and overt discrimination in housing, jobs, government services and public accomodations. Nonwhites, for example, are welcome to spend their money in downtown stores, but lunch-counters, most restaurants, and other kinds of facilities are "white-only."

In 1957, Clara Luper is 34 years old. She's a teacher at the segregated Dunjee Negro High School and advisor to OKC's NAACP Youth Council. As a tribute to Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she pens a short play titled Brother President that her students perform. They are invited to perform at the NAACP convention in New York City. Their Greyhound bus stops for dinner at the St. Louis depot where there is no segregation. For the first time in their lives the students are not relegated to inferior status in a public place. "That was amazing to us," Luper's daughter, Marilyn, later recalled, Mrs. Luper and her students present their play in Harlem and Manhattan. They meet civil rights activists from the South and North.

Under Luper's guidance, the Youth Council studies and discusses the strategies and tactics of nonviolence. They decide to wage a nonviolent campaign to end to lunch-counter segregation in OKC. They know that victory will be neither easy nor quick.

First they try negotiations, without success. An integrated team of Mrs. Luper, a second Afro-American, and Caroline Burkes, a white supporter, meet with the white lunch counter managers and restaurant owners — who fear they'll lose white customers if they serve Blacks. The campaign activists meet with city officials who tell them, "We are sorry, we do not have the power to interfere in private businesses." They write letters to white ministers and religious leaders who ignore them.

In the summer of 1958, they commit themselves to nonviolent direct action. Luper's daughter Marilyn, 8 years old, calls the question: "I move that we go down to Katz Drug Store and sit down and drink a Coke." Says young Areda Tolliver, "I second the motion." [1]

The vote is unanimous. They turn to Mrs. Luper, their adult advisor, who later recalled:

I could feel the eyes of the members on me. ... I saw in the children's eyes reflections of my restless childhood when I wanted to do something about a system that had paralyzed my movements and made me an outsider in my own country. Yet, these were children whose ages ranged from seven to fifteen years old. I thought about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veteran's Hospital 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. History compels us to go and let History alone be our final judge." — Clara Luper, in her memoir Behold the Walls [2]

The Katz Drug Store chain is based in Kansas City Missouri. It has 38 outlets in four mid-America states. The one at the corner of Main and Robinson in OKC is their Oklahoma flagship. It has a top-rated discount pharmacy and sells notions, toys, gifts, and sundries. It also has a lunch counter. Afro-Americans are free to shop throughout the store — but not sit at the lunch counter. They can order food and drinks to go that are handed to them in a brown paper sack to be eaten on the street, or in their car, or anywhere else, but not while seated next to white customers at a Katz lunch counter because to whites that implies social-equality.

August 19th, 1958, is a Tuesday. On that steamy evening, Mrs. Luper leads her young warriors into nonviolent battle. They range in age from 6 to 17  — Goldie Battle, Richard Brown, Elmer Edwards, Gwendolyn Fuller, Betty Germany, Lynzetta Jones, Calvin Luper, Marilyn Luper, Lana Pogue, Linda Pogue, Alma Faye Posey, Barbara Posey, Areda Tolliver, and Portwood Williams Jr. They are driven by adult volunteers Lillian Oliver, Mary Pogue, and Portwood Williams Senior who will wait outside with their cars for whatever may come.

They enter the store, take seats at the counter, and order Cokes.

All of my life, I had wanted to sit at "those counters and drink a Coke or a Seven-Up." It really didn't matter which, but I had been taught that those seats were for "whites only." Blacks were to sweep around the seats, and keep them clean so whites could sit down. It didn't make any difference what kind of white person it was, thief, rapist, murderer, uneducated; the only requirement was that he or she be white. Unbathed, unshaven — it just didn't make any difference. Nor did it make any difference what kind of Black you were, Attorney Black, Rev. Black, Ph.D. Black, rich Black, poor Black, young Black, old Black, pretty Black, ugly Black; you were not to sit down at any lunch counter to eat. We were all seated now in the "for whites only territory." — Clara Luper [1]

The waitresses ignore them — the boss doesn't allow them to serve anyone who isn't white. White diners stalk away from the counter without finishing — they won't eat (or don't dare be seen eating) alongside of Blacks. Other customers curse the children, call them "niggers," spit at them, and pour drinks over their heads. The distraught manager confronts Mrs. Luper who he knows by name: "You know better than this. You know we don't serve colored folks at the counter. You know better, Clara. I don't blame the children! I blame you. You are just a trouble maker."

The manager calls the cops. They arrive quickly. The manager confers with the sergeant, then higher ranking officers as they arrive on scene. The cops remove a reporter and TV crew, but other journalists crowd in — this is news! The manager and the police brass continue their discussions. They don't arrest Mrs. Luper or the children who are sitting-in. A white customer confronts Luper, "Move, you black S.O.B.," another coughs in the face of the young protesters. Linda Pogue (7), is shoved off her seat. Without a word, she gets up and sits back down. Her sister Lana (6) whispers to Mrs. Luper, "Why do they look so mean?"

An angry white woman confronts Mrs. Luper, "If you don't get those little old poor ugly-looking children out of here, we are going to have a race riot," she snarls. "You just want to start some trouble. Don't you know about the Tulsa race riots?"

[Referring to the white mob that rampaged through Tulsa's Greenwood community in 1921, looting, burning, and massacring as many as 300 Afro-American men, women, and children.]

For long hours, with courage and dignity, Mrs. Luper and the small band of nonviolent freedom fighters endure and defy hate, threats, and abuse. They finally leave when the lunch counter closes for the night — their thirst unslaked.

The next day the Youth Council protesters return to the lunch counter, now joined by a dozen or more new recruits. Afro-American funeral homes volunteer cars and drivers to ferry them. The owner of the Black-owned Blanches' Drive-In donates food.

Katz serves them burgers and Cokes and announces a new non-segregation policy — not just in OKC but for all its stores in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa. Henceforth, all customers will be served at the lunch counter regardless of race, creed or color. "Within that hamburger was the whole essence of democracy," Luper later recalled.

Luper and the Youth Council expand their effort to other lunch counters and restaurants such as Bishop's and Anna Maude's. After a few days of sit-ins, Veazey's Drug and Green's Variety stores agree to desegregate. The S.H Kress outlet removes their counter stools and switches to a policy of serving everyone — Black and white — standing up. Stand-alone, "whites-only" restaurants, however, are not affected by the threat of a boycott's economic pressure. They refuse to budge. Similar protests pop up at lunch counters and diners in urban areas across the state, some led by various NAACP youth groups, others spontaneous. Some are successful, others not.

The pace of the sit-ins slow when school resumes in the fall, but Luper and the Youth Council persevere, calling for boycotts of stores that ask Afro-Americans to buy goods but refuse them service at the lunch counter. The sit-ins and boycotts continue into 1959, 1960, and '61. Luper is arrested more than 20 times on various charges brought by owners and managers — but she soldiers on. As do her growing cadre of protesters and boycotters.

Most members of the Black community applaud the sit-ins and support the boycotts— but not all. Some fear a backlash from white employers and landlords, others have beneficial private relationships with individual whites they don't want to jeopardize. Some rush to assure the white community that they think Luper is going "too fast." Others have religious objections to social/political action of any kind. And some are offended by a bold, assertive, woman who seems not to know "her proper place."

Clara Luper doesn't back down:

I know that those Blacks who aren't participating in the movement will be the first ones to eat in the restaurants, the first ones to sleep in the hotels, and the first and only ones to be placed by their good white folks, on boards, commissions and in 'top paying jobs.' While those of us that are [boycotting] John A. Brown's today will continue to be isolated from the fruits of Democracy — Clara Luper [1]

John A. Brown's is the prestige department store in Oklahoma City and flagship outlet for a small chain. They adamantly refuse to desegregate their dining facilities. The chain is run by Mrs. Brown, the widow of the founder and a piller of OKC's uppercrust society. Because of its social position, the John Brown department store chain is key. Finally, after three years of protests and boycotts, in 1961 Mrs. Brown asks for a personal, private meeting with Mrs. Luper. Luper is wary and hesitant. She contacts Mississippi NAACP activist Vera Pigee for advice. Pigee tells her, "I don't know how you sophisticated Blacks do in Oklahoma, but in Mississippi, when white folks want to talk, we put down everything that we are doing and we go to them and talk. You see, when white folks stop shooting and start talking, we are happy to talk.

The Youth Council activists also urge Luper to take the meeting and she agrees. Proud and defiant, she walks into the store where she has led sit-ins and boycott efforts so many times before.

It was common information at John A. Brown's that Mrs. Brown and I were going to meet. And I could feel the tension as I walked into the store alone and toward her office. ... That day I was ready for Mrs. John A. Brown. All of the frustrations that had been building within me for the last four years were going to come out "right in her white face." Mrs. Brown opened the door, we both stood speechless before each other and with tears in our eyes, we embraced each other as if we had been friends for years. Oh, I know this couldn't be, but it was, and now we were talking. Two women, one black and one white. One rich and one poor. Historical circumstances had brought us together. — Clara Luper [1]

As the two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum talk they come to develop respect and eventually friendship for each other. Mrs. Brown tells Mrs. Luper, "Take this message back to the children. Segregation will end at John A. Brown's."

Desegregating Brown's is huge victory.

But the struggle continues with more sit-ins, boycotts, and arrests at establishments that still maintain "whites-only" segregation. By mid-1964, more than 100 white-only eating facilities in Oklahoma have been desegregated by the courage and determination of Black protesters — but many more remain segregated. Finally, in June of that year, with the writing on the wall that the southern filibuster in Washington against the Civil Rights Act is about to be broken, the OKC City Council enacts an anti-segregation ordinance barring discrimination in public accommodations because of race, religion or color. A couple of days after the national law goes into effect, the state of Oklahoma complies with a state-wide order.


Atlanta Police Murder of Joseph Jeter (Sept)

In 1958, Perry Homes is one of the biggest low-income public-housing projects in Atlanta Georgia. Completed just four years earlier, it houses 1100 Afro-American families in the standard, two-story, red brick, multi-apartment, buildings that are common to federal housing projects throughout the South. As required by Washington, it is completely segregated, all the residents are Black. But unlike most of projects in the South, the Perry Homes manager is Afro-American — as are at least some of the employees.

On September 13, Clarence Ellison, a young Black man, is apprehended by police across the street from the project. He breaks away, tries to flee, and is violently subdued by five cops — all of them white (of course). They manhandle him into a squad car where they continue to beat and pistol-whip him.

Some tesidents from the Homes gather to watch. A Black woman from the project pleads with the cops to stop because the boy is already subdued and in the car. The lawmen club her down and arrest her. The project's Afro-American manager approaches the police to see if he can be of assistance in calming matters. One cop grabs him around the neck and lifts him off the ground while another hits him. Joseph Jeter, a 40-year old project employee, tries to inform the cops that they are abusing the project manager. Officer W.O. Dempsey shoots him in the chest, killing him.

The police account of the shooting claims that Jeter and a unruly crowd of 500 people threatened them and tried to free the suspect. They allege that Jeter struck an officer from behind, jumped on top of him, and grabbed his gun. They avow that Dempsey shot him to protect himself and the other police. The white-owned newsmedia accepts and reports the cop's story without hesitation or question.

None of this is unusual. Similar events regularly occur in poor Afro-American and other nonwhite neighborhoods across the South — and the nation. But Atlanta is one of the two largest urban areas in the South. It has a significant Black population and a small but thriving Afro-American middle class that is — to a degree — financially indepentent from the white power-structure. In an effort that is strikingly unusual for the late-1950s South, members of Atlanta's Black elite form a Citizens Committee to publicly protest the police killing.

Prominent among the dozen publicly-identified members of the Citizen Committee is "Daddy" King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr, father of Martin Luther King Jr. who is in the North promoting his first book, Stride Towards Freedom about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Also on the committee is Bishop J.W.H. Bowen, educator Dr. Benjamin Mays, Atlanta Daily World publisher C.A. Scott, and businessmen Herman Russell, and Jesse Hill Jr.

With defiant courage, they publish an open Letter to the Editor of the Atlanta Constitution criticizing the paper's biased reporting, setting straight the facts, and calling for the punishment of, "police who use unnecessary and uncalled for force, and who manhandle women." Though phrased with exquisite courtesy, the letter expresses the committee's belief, "that there is no place in the city of Atlanta for 'trigger happy' policemen or for members of the police force who feel that defenseless prisoners much be unmercifully beaten." [3]

The white power-structure ignores the Citizens Committee. Without incontrovergible photo or video evidence, the all-white county grand jury rules that Dempsey killed Jeter "in self-defense" despite sworn-testimony by multiple eye-witnesses (two of whom are white) that the police account is patently false.

But unoticed by adult community leaders of both races, among Atlanta's Afro-American college students a few take note of both the injustice and the ineffectiveness of polite letters to the editor. They begin to quietly discuss the possibilities of taking direct action against segregation.


Youth March for Integrated Schools — Washington, DC (Oct)

See The Little Rock Nine for preceding events.

As part of their "Massive Resistance" to school integration, Southern racists label integration a "communist plot." Billboards falsely claiming to show Dr. King at a "Communist Training Camp" are put up across the South. In September, Governor Faubus of Arkansas closes high schools in Little Rock to maintain segregation, and asserts that the only people who support school desegregation are the NAACP and other "Communist-inspired" groups.

To counter this racist propoganda campaign, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, Daisy Bates, Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Wilkins send letters to youth organizations, church groups, and labor organizations calling for a Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington DC to show that students from across the nation support integrated schools. They hope for 1,000 students. On October 25, more than 10,000 march down Constitution Avenue and rally at the Lincoln Memorial. The march includes delegations from most of the main universities and colleges, church, labor, and civic organizations, and from as far away as California.

Still recovering from a near-fatal stab wound, Dr. King is unable to attend, and his wife Coretta reads his address to the marchers.

An integrated delegation of march participants is designated to meet with President Eisenhower and White House officials to present the march demands and discuss issues of education and school desegregation. Neither the president nor anyone else in the White House is willing to meet with them. The gates are locked against them. After half an hour they leave their written materials with the gate guard to be forwarded to "Ike." No response is ever received.

See Second Youth March for Integrated Schools — Washington, DC for continuation.

For more information:
Documents: Documents From the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation

Thai translation of this article.


1958 Quotation Sources:

1. Behold the Walls excerpt (Activism Beyond the Classroom)
2. Behold the Walls, Clara Luper
3. Letter to the Editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Citizens Committee



© Bruce Hartford
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