5 things about Oklahoma's civil rights movement you should know
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a multi-part series highlighting Oklahoma’s place in the civil rights movement that will be published throughout February in honor of Black History Month.
Oklahoma has a rich black history that includes the integration of blacks into Native American tribes, and the participation of blacks during the Civil War and the Oklahoma Land Run. Some Oklahoma towns wouldn’t even exist today — like Langston — if it weren’t for blacks coming together and creating them.
Oklahoma also has a rich history when it comes to the national civil rights movement.
When most people think about the movement they think about states like Alabama and Mississippi, but our state played a large role in the movement’s development throughout the mid 1900s.
Here are 5 things you should know about Oklahoma’s participation in the civil rights movement.
Katz Drug in downtown Oklahoma City was the setting of what’s referred to as the tipping point in the nation’s civil rights movement. That’s where, in the fall of 1958, Clara Luper and 13 black children participated in a sit-in, silently and non-violently protesting segregation at the store’s lunch counter.
The children, age 6 to 13, took turns sitting at the counter, following Luper’s, an Oklahoma City public school teacher, example. Their goal was simple: To be treated equally and be served the food they ordered.
There they experienced angry mobs and, oftentimes, the children curled up in fear as they endured racial slurs while being scalded with hot grease, punched, kicked and spat on.
The sit-in lasted a long two days. That’s when an employee gave in and served a child a hamburger.
The display was one of the first of its kind and it opened the doors to many similar displays across the nation.
June of 1964 is when Oklahoma City finally adopted a public accommodations ordinance that forbid businesses from refusing services to anyone based on race, religion, color, creed, ancestry or national origin.
It happened a month before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Most of the civil rights movement displays that took place in Oklahoma were responses to hate crimes that happened elsewhere in the nation, like police brutality in Selma, Ala., and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Joyce Henderson, one of Luper's former students, said, "We didn't experience what many others did in some southern states. We didn't have the brutality."
Bruce Fisher, an Oklahoma civil rights historian, said Oklahoma desegregation began in the early 1960s but was a gradual thing. Yet, public places like bathrooms, buses, parks and stores remained segregated.
Henderson once said of the movement: “It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out something was wrong with the way it felt … We made progress, but it's not like we made it overnight."
It was 1951 when Oklahoma City saw its first black fire fighter, thanks to an agreement between the Oklahoma City Fire Department and civil rights leaders. Facing a bond issue, the fire department was wanting the leaders’ support. And, they gave it, under the condition that the department hire blacks. Twelve black men were chosen and one, Carl Holmes, went on to become assistant fire chief and established the Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute which, to this day, trains black firefighters.
It was 1961 when a father named Alphonso Dowell sued Oklahoma City Public Schools to allow his son, Robert, to transfer to Northeast High School. The case went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court and was a catalyst that led to the desegregation of Oklahoma public schools.
It was 1964 when the Oklahoma Legislature redrew district boundaries, which were previously altered by political leaders to keep black voices out of government. Upon the redrawing in 1964, black voters took to the polls en masse to elect officials who would represent them.
It was in 1969 when Oklahoma City sanitation workers went on strike, citing poor working conditions, pay and treatment. The strike lasted for several months and, on Oct. 31, “Black Friday” occurred: Sympathizers from all walks of life walked out of their jobs in support for the mostly-black striking sanitation workers. Oklahoma City police responded by donning riot gear, guns and billy clubs. Fisher once said it was “an experience that's never been equaled in Oklahoma City since." Eventually the city gave in to most of the demands and the events of “Black Friday” ended.
Both Fisher and Henderson, and also Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, urge the importance of continued education about Oklahoma’s civil rights movement.
Fisher, who oversaw the completion of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s first exhibit dedicated to black history, said, though Oklahoma has come a long way, it’s important for people — especially children — to understand what it’s taken to get to this point.
“My fear is that not enough people know the history and appreciate the history,” he said.
Henderson said the stories must continue being told to new generations, regardless of skin color.
"We have a responsibility to share the history," she said. "It cannot be shared with just one race of people.”
“I think we're still shaped today,” he said. “We're continuing to evolve, by the actions of that era and the brave men and women who finally stood up and said, 'We can do better.'"