On August 19, 1958, Clara Luper, along with thirteen children, from the NAACP youth council, went to the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City, known for not serving Black people at the lunch counter. Clara and the children walked in, sat down at the counter, and ordered thirteen Cokes. They were refused service and over the next couple of days experienced harassment though taunts and jeers from white customers. This was the beginning of the first sit-ins across the country with a goal of breaking down the walls of segregation.
As we approached this important anniversary, we sat down with Jabee Williams, Oklahoma City’s own EMMY Award winning musical artist, entrepreneur, and community activist. Jabee helps organize, alongside the Clara Luper Legacy Committee, the commemoration events to honor these important dates in Oklahoma’s history.
1. Do you remember the first time you learned about Clara Luper and the Katz Drug Store Sit-In? How did you feel at that moment?
I learned about Clara Luper as a kid, she was a good friend of my grandmother. My Grandmother, David Lee, is in her book Behold the Walls. But I didn’t learn about the Katz Drug Store Sit-In until my early 20s. At the time, I really didn’t understand the timing of when it happened because I had only really heard about the sit-in that took place in Greensboro.
It wasn't until the 60th anniversary that I understood the significance of those actions and how pivotal those days were in the civil rights movement. It really put an urgency in my heart to tell that story.
2. We see the results of segregation from the past directly impact Oklahoma’s communities to this day. Is there an experience you have had that you personally felt the results of segregation or racism?
I remember the first time I was called a N word by a kid when I was 7 years old. I remember the day, what the kid looked like, and his name. He was a friend of mine until he got mad at me and called me the N word. I was at an all white elementary school at the time.
To this day, when I walk into an all white space, I feel uncomfortable. I’ve been treated as if I don't belong or flat out ignored. They act a certain way just because I am there taking up space. Those things happen every day.
3. You have worked closely over the years with the Clara Luper Legacy Committee to bring attention to the anniversary of the sit-in. What have you learned from working with the Committee that others might not know?
The children who attended the sit-in with Clara Luper went through so much and were so young. People didn't care that they were kids. Marilyn Luper Hildreth, Clara Luper’s daughter who attended the sit-in, told me a story about the time she had a chimpanzee thrown on her. She was the age of my kids! A chimp has the strength to pull your arms off. The children also went to jail so many times. They endured a lot and had the moral high ground but because they were BLACK, they were jailed for their actions.
4. What do you think is the one of the most valuable lessons from the sit-in that people should pay attention to?
People should take a moment and realize how recent these events were. The children who took part in the sit-in are still alive to this day to tell their stories. This also means the people who abused those children are still alive and passing those beliefs down to their children.
5. What gives you hope?
My children give me hope. The idea of educating people and touching the hearts of people gives me hope.
6. Tell us about this upcoming weekend's celebration to mark the 64th anniversary of the Katz Drug Store sit-in.
This weekend is going to be full of celebration in honor of those sit-inners who did so much.
Thursday, we have a jazz musician Hannibal Lokumbe donating his time to play a concert in honor Mrs. Luper and the sit inners.
Friday, we are having an art show and panel discussion with the Freedom Fiesta Celebration organizing committee and several sit inners. The art will include several artists from Oklahoma who have done pieces inspired by Clara Luper and the sit-inners.
Saturday, we will have a reenactment of the Katz Drug Store sit-in. The reenactment will include 13 young people stepping into the space as the first 13 who accompanied Clara Luper. Mrs. Marilyn and several others who attended the sit-in will also speak. It is very emotional and a chance to really honor those sit-inners. It's one of my favorite things.
Sunday, we have a guest speaker and honor those who were involved in the movement.
You can find out more by following me on Twitter at @mynameisJabee and the Clara Luper Legacy Committee at @ClaraLuper.