Several children walk in from the hot August sun for a soda at the counter of Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. It’s 1958. The children are African-American – and until then, had been prohibited from sitting at the soda fountain counter because of the color of their skin.
It is the first so-called “sit-in” in Oklahoma City to show discontent with the segregation policies of the time.
Guiding them is Clara Luper, Oklahoma City-based educator and civil rights activist who became an advisor for the NAACP Youth Council in 1957, prior to the Aug. 19, 1958 sit-in.
“I never felt afraid, even as a 7-year-old child,” says Ayanna Najuma, who participated in the sit-in. “Some of the parents thought their children’s lives would be in jeopardy. But I was always taught that I was as good as anybody, but not better than anybody. It was something that I felt I needed to be doing.”
Minutes from a 1959 NAACP meeting following the event indicate that the Oklahoma City sit-in was “by far the most successful, with 51 stores capitulating to the council’s efforts.” The others in 1958 were Wichita, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Maywood, Illinois; and Indianapolis, Indiana.
It was an act that created a lasting impact for the city.
The Youth Council continued to conduct nonviolent demonstrations throughout the early 1960s, helping to end segregation in public accommodations in Oklahoma. Luper went on to become a prominent figure in the national Civil Rights Movement. Maintaining her adherence to nonviolence, she participated in marches and demonstrations and was often jailed in her Civil Rights struggle.
Luper died June 8, 2011, at the age of 88.
In tribute to the work that was started on that day, Oklahoma City recently passed the MAPS4 initiative, which will fund restoration of the historic Freedom Center, home of the local civil rights movement. And the new Clara Luper center will serve as a civil rights museum for Oklahoma City and as a community gathering place.
The 7-year-old Ayanna Najuma grew into a woman whose life has been defined by a fight for equality. She spent much of her adult life in Washington, D.C., before returning to Oklahoma City in early 2012. Now, approaching 70, Najuma continues to be a voice for change. She is an outspoken advocate for change and currently oversees a conversational initiative on social justice called “What Lies Between Us.” The gatherings are at 6:30 p.m. twice monthly at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 NW Expressway.
“I say congratulations for the work we did, but after 60 years, I cannot retire. I don’t have that luxury because that’s not who I am,” she says. “Until children feel fabulous about themselves,
my time is not done. I can’t let it go. We all make choices … Mine is what type of legacy I want to leave.”
CUTLINE: In this photo, 7-year-old Ayanna Najuma is staring at the camera as she participates in civil disobedience at Katz Drug Store.