march 2011

clara luper
Clara Luper: ‘Through her actions, she helped lead Oklahoma and the nation forward by showing courage and courtesy simultaneously, often in the face of unpleasant opposition.’

The Remarkable ‘Mother Luper’

May 23, 1923-June 8, 2011

Passionate and fearless, Clara Luper directed the first national sit-in, sparked a movement, and played a central role in breaking the back of segregation as a lifelong Civil Rights champion

Clara Luper, a civil rights pioneer whose lunch counter sit-ins in Oklahoma City in 1958 launched a national movement that helped end discrimination in public restaurants, died on June 8 at her OKC home following a long illness. She was 88.

Luper had been the face of the Oklahoma civil rights movement since 1958, when she led a sit-in protest inside Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City, where the owners had refused to serve black customers.

Roosevelt Milton, 66, president emeritus of the NAACP's Oklahoma City and Oklahoma chapters, praised her as a primary groundbreaker in the movement.

"I think that Clara was the last great civil rights icon in Oklahoma," Milton said. "She was a very passionate and fearless person when it came to the NAACP mission."

Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, called Luper a civil rights giant.

"Throughout her life, Ms. Luper adhered to the principle that actions speak louder than words," Steele said. "Through her actions, she helped lead Oklahoma and the nation forward by showing courage and courtesy simultaneously, often in the face of unpleasant opposition. A road near the Capitol is now deservedly named in her honor, but perhaps the most fitting tribute to give Ms. Luper is fulfilling her vision that all Oklahomans and Americans are equal, our histories and futures intrinsically linked. She will be greatly missed, but her legacy will never be forgotten."

clara luper
Clara Luper poses with one of many photos in her personal scrapbooks commemorating her experiences in the Civil Rights movement.

Clara Shepard Luper was born May 3, 1923, in Okfuskee County, the middle of five children of Ezell and Isabell Shepherd. Her father was a WWI veteran and laborer; her mother worked as a laundress. Clara married Charles P. Wilson and had three children, Calvin, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, and Chelle Marie. In 1944 Luper received a bachelor's degree from Langston University. She later earned a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1951; she was the first African American admitted to the school’s graduate history program. Luper taught history and public relations for 41 years, starting at Dunjee High School in Spencer, Oklahoma, and later at Classen and John Marshall high schools; she retired from the latter school in 1989. While teaching, Luper wrote, directed, and produced Brother President, a play based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

She marched with Dr. King, whom she knew personally. In the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 she was clubbed in the knee and injured. Luper was arrested 26 times during sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. Her book, Behind These Walls, published in 1979, detailed her work in the civil rights movement, much of which drew national attention.

Luper made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, became the first black vice president for the Oklahoma County Teachers Association and served as a consultant and adviser on school desegregation in Oklahoma City.

Clara Luper was arrested 26 times during sit-ins
and other nonviolent protests.

Luper became the advisor for the Oklahoma City National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in 1957. A year later she chaperoned a group of black students to New York City. The trip eastward was through the northern states; many of the students experienced, for the first time, treatment equal to whites in public places. On their return through Southern states, they re-entered familiar, segregated territory. That brief taste of equality would help change American history.

In August 1958, a Youth council group met in Luper's home and decided to force the issue at downtown eating places that refused to serve blacks. They decided to sit down and stay seated until they were served.

On August 20, 1958, along with 13 young people, ages six to 13, including her two oldest children, Calvin and Marilyn, Luper directed a sit-in protest at Katz Drug on Main Street in downtown Oklahoma City. She taught her young people courage and self-respect and the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. She made certain that every day their clothes were clean and ironed, so they would look confident.

The youth endured curses and threats from other customers, were covered with ketchup, hot grease and spit and were kicked and punched. Luper was with them constantly. One black child was served a hamburger at the Katz lunch counter, and the breakthrough opened Oklahoma City restaurants to blacks. Luper and the children demonstrated for better treatment for blacks at John A. Brown's luncheonette, Anna Maude Cafeteria, the Skirvin Hotel and Wedgewood Amusement Park. The Youth Council continued to conduct sit-ins throughout the early 1960s, helping to end segregation in public accommodations in Oklahoma. Maintaining her adherence to nonviolence, Luper participated in marches and demonstrations and was often jailed in her civil rights struggle.

The story of the first sit-ins, with Clara Luper. Posted at YouTube by Spheerix.

Luper’s Legacy

Luper helped establish the Youth Council of the Oklahoma City Chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s and served as its adviser for 50 years. She is credited with directing the sit-in, a new type of nonviolent protest, and for staging the first such publicized event in the nation.

Clara Luper in front of the Freedom Center she opened on 2609 N. Martin Luther King Avenue in Oklahoma City as the local headquarters of the NAACP youth programs (Photo: Stan Paregien Sr.©2008)

In 2000, a 2.7-mile section of NE 23, where she had led young people in walks and marches many times, was renamed the Clara Luper Corridor. In 2002, Edward L. Gaylord, then president of The Oklahoma Publishing Co., initiated a scholarship fund in her name, honoring her life work of giving youngsters self-respect and hope, along with a start on their education. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame and the Afro-American Hall of Fame.

In later years, Luper directed celebrations of the anniversaries of civil rights landmarks, and produced the Miss Black Oklahoma pageant, which she used as a medium to teach young women social skills. She opened the Freedom Center, the northeast Oklahoma City headquarters for NAACP youth programs, and frequently served as a calming, practical influence for cooperation in race relations.

Remembering 'Mother Luper'


As a 16-year-old, Joyce Henderson, a soon-to-be senior at Dunjee High School, heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. present his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963. With a little cash in her purse and a change of clothes in a small suitcase, Henderson boarded one of two charter buses with fellow students active in the NAACP Youth Council. One of her teachers, Clara Luper, invited her to make the trip to Washington.

Last Friday and again Monday, Henderson went by to see Luper. On Friday, "I said, 'Mother Luper, this is Joyce.' She nodded her head; she knew who I was."

Henderson, though not in on the initial sit-in, became involved in the movement. She said Luper's students at Dunjee would call her "Ms. Luper."


"As we've grown older many of us began calling her Mother Luper," she said. "She was truly that. For whatever reason she made each of us feel special, like she was our mother."

Henderson always felt a sense of security knowing of Luper's presence in the world, she said. That made Thursday a sad day for Henderson, who retired in 2006 after 36 years as an educator and administrator.

"You've got to admit that Oklahoma and this world is a better place because of Mother Luper," she said.

Bruce Fisher, administrative program officer for the Oklahoma History Center, was emotionally shaken Thursday when he heard the news.

Fisher played a major role in designing an exhibit at the museum featuring a replica of the Katz Drug Store lunch counter. He said Luper's efforts are an important part of Oklahoma history and important to the national civil rights movement as well.

"I wanted to make sure that we never forget that, and what an important role she played in ensuring the rights and freedoms that so many of us now take for granted," Fisher said.

Valerie Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City, said Oklahoma has lost an innovative educator and pioneer for change.

"Clara Luper served as a beacon for civil rights and equality," Thompson said. "Her pioneering spirit, tireless commitment to education and advocacy for equal opportunity will never be forgotten."

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said Luper was a great Oklahoman and a great American.

"Her peaceful, resolute sit-in protest at the Katz Drug Store, where the owners at the time refused to serve African-Americans, paved the way for equal rights in Oklahoma City," Cornett said. "If that was the extent of her contribution to Oklahoma and the nation, it would have been accomplishment enough, but that act came early on, and Clara dedicated the rest of her long and wonderful life to such basic human needs as dignity, honor and respect."

Cornett requested that flags on city property be flown at half-staff in honor of Luper through sunset Friday, June 10.

Clara Luper reacts to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Luper was watching TV with Councilman Ronald ‘Skip’ Kelly, her daughter Marilyn Hildreth and nine-year-old Alexia Grant at the Freedom Center at NE 26th and Martin Luther King Blvd. in Oklahoma City, January 20, 2009. (Photo: Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman)

U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma City) said, "The courage of Clara Luper and her children provided the turning point in Oklahoma's race relations, through their dignified and principled stand against discrimination in 1958. A lifetime later, our culture has made great strides, but we still have much work to do to remove barriers that keep Americans from achieving their fullest potential. Today's generation can thank Clara Luper for many of the freedoms they experience today.

"She made Oklahoma and the United States of America a better place to live and was a shining example of the distinctly American idea that while we might hail from many cultures, we are one people."

Throughout the 1960s, Luper worked with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to stage sit-ins and non-violent protests that ultimately led to the desegregation of restaurants in Oklahoma City.

In an interview with CNN affiliate KWTV, Luper's son, Calvin, said his mother was surrounded by family at the time of her death.

Noting that his mother is known for organizing the Katz Drug Store sit-in, Calvin Luper emphasized that his mother was dedicated to making the life of all citizens in Oklahoma better.

"Now we have to step up to the plate and accept the responsibility and do what Mom wanted us to do,” he added, “and that would be to carry on her legacy of honesty and do anything else that would make our city and state a great place."

From 1960 to 1980 Luper hosted her own radio show, and she chronicled her fight for civil rights in her autobiography, Behold the Walls. A member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, the Oklahoma Education Association, and the National Education Association, Luper received 154 awards, including the Langston Alumni Award, Zeta Phi Beta Woman of the Year Award, the Oklahoma Confederated Women's Club Award, and the National Voter Registration Award.

Her two daughters, a son and several grandchildren survive Luper.


'The Last of My Generation's Heroes'

clara luper

On March 3, 2006. Professor Bob Darcy, Regents Professor of Political Science and Statistics, Oklahoma State University 1991-present, published an essay in the school's newspaper, The Daily O'Collegian. Lamenting the absence of heroes of the stature of FDR, Eisenhower, Albert Schweitzer, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others in the arts, politics and science, Prof. Darcy did find one "hero of our generation," Clara Luper, "mother of the Civil Rights Movement, last of the heroes who redeemed Oklahoma and showed the way for the rest of the country."

Prof. Darcy observed:

Luper was born in Okfuskee County and was educated in the segregated schools of Hoffman and Grayson in Okmulgee County. Her early memories include the sign in nearby Henryetta that said "Negro, read and run, If you can't read, Run anyway." She recalls using discarded white-school textbooks with missing pages, sitting at the back of trains, not being allowed to try on clothes in stores, and exclusion from restaurants, libraries, bathrooms, and phone booths. Among the first African-Americans admitted to the University of Oklahoma, a professor told her, "I have never taught a nigger and never wanted to."

That evil world was created by a few Oklahomans led by Alfalfa Bill Murray. Writing Oklahoma's Constitution, Murray said, "We should adopt a provision prohibiting the mixed marriages of negroes with other races in this State, and provide for separate schools and give the legislature power to separate them in waiting rooms and on passenger coaches, and all other institutions in the State ... they are failures as lawyers, doctors and in other professions. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks and barbers..."

Murray took the vote from African-Americans, denied them the right to study in libraries with whites, ride on trains with whites unless they were shackled, and denied them the right to shower, fish or swim in the same water as whites.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper began Oklahoma's civil rights movement with a student sit-in at the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City. It took years, but she and her students integrated Oklahoma City eating establishments. The same tactic integrated white-only churches. Luper successfully turned to fair housing. The destruction of Murray's Oklahoma had begun.

Oklahomans have a hard time recognizing their heroes. A student this week told me the first sit-ins began Feb. 1, 1960, when a group of black college students from Greensboro, N.C., began a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. Luper's sit-ins began here, a year-and-a-half earlier.

We diminish ourselves when we fail to recognize the great among us. Oklahoma sit-ins began our national salvation and Luper led the way. Luper, the last of my generation's heroes.


clara luper
Clara Luper waves after being introduced to crowd inside the Oklahoma History Center. More than 300 people walked along the Clara Luper Corridor to the Center, where there were brief speeches followed by a bell ringing ceremony for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Oklahoma City, Monday morning, Jan. 19, 2009. (Photo: Jim Beckel, The Okahoman)

Oklahoma Sit-Ins: A Conversation with Clara Luper

In 1957, high school history teacher Clara Luper was given the opportunity to escape segregated Oklahoma by spending a few days in New York presenting Brother President, a play she wrote about Martin Luther King. Luper and the group of students she brought with her were able to go about their day like everyone else and order sodas from non-segregated lunch counters. As their bus journeyed back through the Jim Crow South, Luper vowed to take on segregation and explained how she was going to do it in her book, Behold the Walls:

"I though about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veterans' 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.’

Shortly thereafter, Luper and 12 members of the NAACP Youth Council, ages six to 17, walked into the Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered 13 Coca-Colas. A typical response from Luper's fellow white customers was, "The nerve of the niggers trying to eat in our places. Who does Clara Luper think she is? She is nothing but a damned fool, the black thing." Thanks to patience and persistence, Katz, a major drug store, eventually desegregated the lunch counters in all of its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

That action led to similar sit-ins in Oklahoma City and across the South. Luper eventually became known as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Luper is well-known in Oklahoma, but isn't a household name nationwide. At the time of this interview, the then-82-year-old Luper was still active, speaking about her work to groups across the country and involved with the NAACP, Miss Black Oklahoma and her church. This interview was conducted at Ms. Luper's home in Oklahoma City.

Clara Luper reflects on the early years of the Civil Rights era, including the nation’s first-sit, in Oklahoma City

Tell me about the work you've been involved with in the past, specifically the sit-ins.

Well, first off, I'm black. I've known segregation as one of the worst experiences of a person's life. I was born in a segregated area. I went to a segregated school where we'd be reading sometimes on page four and the next page would be ten. I have had the experience of going to the back of the bus, not being able to go to libraries, public accommodations and what have you. I've always hated segregation with a passion. That's why I've been associated with the NAACP.

Did you immediately recognize that segregation was wrong?

I was always taught that segregation was wrong. I came from a family that understood the scars of segregation and they knew it was wrong, but doing something about it was a different story because Oklahoma was primarily at its infancy a Democratic State. In writing the Constitution, the first laws that were passed were segregation laws, so my parents had lived with it. My dad was a veteran of World War I and he believed what Woodrow Wilson said: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. My mother was from Texas and she saw a black person burned in Paris, Texas and she was afraid that would happen to anyone who spoke out against segregation. When I would say, why do we have to go to the back of the bus? My mother would say, shut up; my dad would say, someday you'll be able to ride anywhere on the bus. He had a lot of faith in what would happen and what would change in Oklahoma.

When it comes to segregation and racism, most people think of Mississippi and Alabama. What would you say to people who don't know that much about the history of Oklahoma, especially as it pertains to racism and segregation?

Well, they haven't studied Oklahoma history, because during the debate on the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, one Senator stated that Oklahoma had the worst segregation laws in the United States, which is true. Our laws were on the books and they stated very clearly that we should be separated. It was written by Bill Murray who hated Catholics, Jews and Blacks. And he wrote it so that all laws would be segregation laws. People just don't know because we are a young state and people have not paid attention to us like they have in other states. We've had lynchings in this state. We've had burnings. In fact, my building was bombed. We've had a lot of things. But one difference between Oklahoma and the other states is that we had a nonviolent movement here.

Tell me about that movement.

In 1957, I wrote as part of a black history program, a play that I call, Brother President, which was a story about Martin Luther King. I had met Martin Luther King through the NAACP when he received an award in New York City. I'm Baptist and I was so proud to hear a Baptist minister talk about social changes. I wrote this play and for the first time in my life, I took a group of young people to New York City because the NAACP had asked for voices from the South and we went there. Most of my kids had never had the opportunity to go in a restaurant and order Cokes and what have you. We lived at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City and the kids really enjoyed it, but on the way back, we came back through segregated Washington DC, which was another experience. Then I thought that I cannot leave this area until I take my kids to Arlington Cemetery. That's a heartwarming experience because you just don't realize how many people have died perpetuating what we call democracy. So a 14-year-old girl standing in the Arlington Cemetery says to me: “What can we do? All of these people have died for freedom. What can we do?” We came back through the segregated South where we couldn't eat in restaurants.

To make a long story short, when we came back to Oklahoma City, the NAACP Youth Council met and wanted to open public accommodations to all and we thought it'd be easy because we are known as the Bible center of America. We thought all we had to do was make our wishes known. I had a friend, who happened to be white, who was so excited about the project. We decided to go to the restaurants together and when we did that, all hell broke out because they would say to the white lady, come in, but Clara Luper, you can't come in. We did that for seventeen long months and after seventeen months, the kids made reports and my daughter Marilyn said, “Let's go downtown and wait.” And we selected the stores where most blacks traded. So we decided that night to go to Katz Drug Store. Katz Drug Store not only had drugs, it had a basement with tennis shoes and shirts and what have you. So we went in, 13 of us, and took seats. People that had known us for years began to curse us. They called the police. Policemen came from all directions, but we were just sitting at the counter. We were not arrested. That was in 1958 and we are getting ready to celebrate the 48th anniversary of the beginning of the sit-in movement. We celebrate every year. That's how we got started.

When did the dialogue begin to shift? In the beginning, people were outraged?

People were outraged. We had to sit-in from 1958 to 1964, so they were outraged because we were able to uncover the prejudice that had been quilted into the intellectual fabrics of the whites in this state.

Did you have any white champions? Did anyone have a change of heart and say, you're right, segregation is wrong.

I don't think they had a change of heart. There were a lot of whites that participated in the movement. I told the whites, when you participate in this movement, you're going to suffer discrimination and they found that out. A priest at a local Catholic Church here was abused and finally run out town. Doctor Yates, who was a young Presbyterian minister who participated, was run out. There were a lot of white people that wanted to see the change. See, white people had a fear in Oklahoma. If they would come out and support us, they would be isolated from their friends and neighbors. There were many business owners that felt if they would come out and support us, they would lose their white customers. There were jail-ins. I went to jail 26 times. There were read-ins. While we were sitting-in, our kids were preparing to live in the real world, so they were reading. Out of that experience, we got doctors and lawyers. A lot of people have gone to the top. In fact, one of the top brain surgeons in the United States started when we were down there sitting-in. He wanted to be a doctor and I said, if you want to be a doctor, memorize all the bones in the body, the vessels, the veins and the arteries and that is what he did. They were very, very successful. In fact, this year, during the sit-in freedom fiesta celebration, one of the young ladies who was voted the best principal in the United States, who has a master's degree, was our guest speaker. She was one of the kids who had the experience of reading during that time.

What's the climate like today? I notice that when I go to churches, they're either all white or all black.

The climate today in Oklahoma has changed. The churches are still the most segregated part of Oklahoma. Our school system has changed, the employment picture has changed on the lower level, but we are still the last ones hired and the first ones fired. I think it's a climate of understanding and credit must not only be given to the NAACP. It must be given to the men that fought in World War II and the Korean War and Vietnam because these guys came back with a different attitude. Things have changed for the better--I know I couldn't even go downtown and now I'm always getting invitations. I got an opportunity not only to work in black schools, but in white schools. I remember quite vividly one white lady who didn't want her son in my class and had the audacity to come to my classroom and call for him. At that time, I had to show her that I was the boss of that classroom, so I went out and said, show me some identification because you might be somebody trying to kidnap one of my students. She was nervous and finally pulled out a driver's license. I explained to her, you've got to understand that I'm responsible for this classroom. Her son, who was a junior at that time, was so embarrassed. When I went in and got him, he was angry with his mother. They had quite a fuss and he told his mother, “I'm staying in this class because I'm learning something.” But to bring it around, this young man is now president of a company, and last year he called and asked me to go to lunch. He didn't tell me his mother was going to be present. So I went to lunch with him and he had his mother apologize to me. He said, “This is the lady that changed my life.” I came from low-income people. I couldn't understand kids who had everything, but wouldn't study and wouldn't work. I really produced some great students because of that. I called them my diamonds and explained, you gotta dig for a diamond. You gotta polish it.

How did the apology make you feel?

In the first place, I have never had the seed of hatred in me. And the white folks that spit on me and cursed me, they were ignorant people. They didn't know my dreams and my aspirations. They didn't know my understanding of America and what it was all about, so I felt sorry for them. I remember one time, I was havin' some fun and I asked one of the segregationists to describe a black person to me. He couldn't do it because we come in so many different colors. When I ran for the United States Senate and I was down in what is known as Little Dixie, one of the leaders of the community asked me how I felt about interracial marriage. I really hated that he asked me that because I know so many marriages have failed whether they're white and white or black and black. I told him, I have never seen an elephant having intercourse with an ant and therefore, I believe that anything that God did not want to mate, he made biologically impossible. He didn't like that, but nobody asked me about interracial marriage again. I think people are hung up on the wrong thing.

Like gay marriage?

Yeah, I have nothin' to do with anybody wanting to marry anybody. That's their business.

The type of activism that you were involved with doesn't happen today. There are protests, but a lot of people say it's difficult to make an impact.

We were protesting against the laws. Another way to go about it is through education. That's what we've got to do. The textbooks must be changed. For example, the Oklahoma history books, before 1980, hardly had anything about women and women were the backbone of the state. The more you know about women, the more you know about blacks, the more you know about Indians, the better off you are. History books have been written by white men.

‘I'm anti-war because I see no need to go somewhere to put democracy down somebody else's throat when we don't have it ourselves.’

But in terms of activism and actions, people from all over the country took to the streets during the Republican National Convention, hundreds of thousands protested the war, people sign petitions, people volunteered during the election, people call their Senators, but many on the left feel like their actions don't make a difference.

The problem is with the young people between the ages of 18 and 45. Those people have not gotten out and registered to vote. They don't think what happens in Washington affects them. You know I'm anti-war because I see no need to go somewhere to put democracy down somebody else's throat when we don't have it ourselves. Bush has a lot of personality that will make people say ok, ok, ok without thinking. That's what is happening. I'm not tied to any political party. I have friends who are Republicans, Independents and Democrats. I'm only interested in people who believe everybody should have basic rights.

What is your opinion of the Bush administration and what they've done over the past four years?

What have they done over the past four years? I know one thing: 1700 of our bright young Americans have died for a cause that I don't understand. Naturally, I'm speaking from a mother's standpoint. I would like to see a war where old men have to go and fight. That would be the kind of war I would like to see. Bush and his group should go over there and send our boys home.

Democrats tend to ignore the so-called "red states" like Oklahoma saying it's not worth spending money here. What do you think about that?

I think it's a mistake. In politics, all states are important.

What can politicians do to get more blacks to vote?

We've got to get them registered and to the polls. A lot of them are still afraid to vote.

What advice would you give to the Democratic party?

I think they should make use of the black media. I'm on the radio. I work for KTLV. We couldn't get John Kerry's group to spend any money in the black community. We have black newspapers and black radio programs. They've got to become involved because the day is over when you can have a BBQ and ask people to come out and vote.

They're really struggling with issues like gay marriage and abortion because the Republicans have done such a good job of turning those into wedge issues.

Those aren't our issues. I don't know any black people who are concerned with gay marriages and abortions. Those are somebody else's issues. We're concerned with hospital prices, medicine, jobs, social security, education and all of that.

It's interesting you say that because when we go to black churches, people say they're against gay marriage and abortion, but say they shouldn't be political issues, whereas when we interview people at white churches, those two issues are at the top of the list. They say they like Bush because he's against gay marriage and abortion.

That's a poor reason. I don't have a right to tell you whom you should marry. I don't have a right to take that decision away from you. I was at one black church and the preacher was explaining that those aren't our issues. Those are Bush's issues. He asked preachers, how many of you have married a gay couple? And not one of them had. This is not an important issue in the black community, according to the blacks I've talked to and God knows I've talked to a lot of them. Unless we wake up, many church people will wake up without health care and social security and other things. Then there will be a crisis in the churches. The Democrats should hit it head on.

What does being Christian mean to you?

Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live. That has really paid off for me because today I am so fortunate in that I have 90 students and I'm paying their room and board at Oklahoma City University. A man put up a million dollars in my name and another organization put up $300,000. This means so much to me because when I went to college, my mother had to move to the servant's quarters so I could go to school.

Would you mind sharing a few more stories from your past that stand out?

I had the opportunity to debate a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and that was quite interesting. I could hardly wait because I know the key to winning a debate is to make a person angry. At the beginning of our debate, I said, I am so happy to be here to debate this issue with my brother. He got mad and he told me he was not my brother. I apologized and said, you've got to remember sir, I'm a Christian and I've been told that all men are brothers. (laughs) That made him so mad. In place of debating the issue, he started saying that he was not my brother. I said, sir, I'm apologizing to you. That's what I've been told: God our father, man our brother, but maybe I have to go back and get my Bible and reread it.

How did the rest of the debate go?

I won it. I won. (laughs) I have another story. We walked to Lawton trying to integrate an amusement park. The man who owned it had me arrested because it was a swimming park and he didn't want blacks to swim. He said he didn't want me swimming in his pool and I looked at him and didn't say anything because I couldn't swim. (laughs)

What eventually happened?

We finally got it opened. The whites weren't always like that. We had one white man, the owner of a park, put us in jail and his dad came and got us out. (laughs) You can never tell. In studying history, only 25 percent of people in the south had anything to do with slavery. You want to make sure you're picking out the right ones. But who can tell who is the right one? That's why you have to love everybody.

(From Stories In America, July 28, 2005)

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