Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center kicked off Black History Month last Thursday with a screening of the 2015 documentary film “Children of the Civil Rights.”
Directed by Oklahoma native Julia Clifford, “Children of the Civil Rights” tells the story of a group of African-American children who helped pave the way for desegregation in Oklahoma City during the Civil Rights Movement.
On August 19, 1958, a group of children from the local NAACP Youth Council walked into Katz drug store in downtown Oklahoma City and asked for service.
They were denied, and told to leave the store immediately. The kids did not budge. This continued in different restaurants throughout downtown Oklahoma City for six years.
Led by Youth Council director and local schoolteacher Clara Luper, the kids sat quietly as white customers threw racial slurs, threats and even hot drinks at them.
But they never threw punches, because the children had been taught not to engage in violence. A year and a half before the famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, Ms. Luper’s children were pioneers for nonviolent protest.
Now, nearly sixty years later, three of the original child protesters, Joyce A. Henderson, Joyce Jackson and Ayanna Najuma, as well as the father of director Julia Clifford and a protester himself, Bill Clifford, joined the Greenwood Cultural Center for a panel discussion on the Oklahoma City sit-in movement.
“I’m glad I did it as a kid, because as an adult, I don’t know if I would have been so obedient,” said Henderson. “But disobeying Clara Luper was not an option.”
“Ms. Luper was my history teacher and the NAACP youth advisor. So we were obedient to her and we wanted to do anything and everything to please her,” said Jackson. “I didn’t realize until I was an adult that someone called us heroes,” she remarked. “I guess we really did make a difference.”
Just about every Saturday morning from 1958 until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, Luper gathered her pupils together at church to pray, go over the rules of nonviolent protest, do drills and then head downtown to put their practice to the test.
The children learned from Ms. Luper how to respond when they were spat at, verbally assaulted and manhandled. She even taught them how to position their bodies to avoid injury when the police forcibly removed them from their seats.
“Because of that training we received, we were able to avoid violence,” said Henderson.
“That’s one of the reasons I think our story was untold, because there was no violence,” said Najuma.
Although the Oklahoma City sit-in movement lasted for nearly six years and helped to desegregate all but one restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City, no national news media ever covered these events.
“I lived in Washington, D.C. for a very long time,” said Najuma. “Even though I participated in numerous marches there, no one ever brought up the Oklahoma City sit-in movement. I think that’s one of the reasons why Julia decided to make the film, because no one knew about us.”
Eight years ago, Clifford asked her dad, Bill, to name a significant moment in his life. Bill responded, “the sit-ins in Oklahoma City.”
“I grew up in Oklahoma and I never heard that story,” said Clifford. “So I went to the library, and there was only one book left on Clara Luper.” She got the book, and immediately she knew that this was something special. “I was hooked.”
For the next eight years, Clifford researched the sit-ins, compiled old videos and photos related to the sit-ins and conducted interviews with the people involved in the sit-ins, including Henderson, Jackson and Najuma, to craft what would finally become “Children of the Civil Rights.”
“I really wanted to tie Oklahoma’s story to the national story,” said Clifford.
Bill Clifford, the self-proclaimed “Producer of the director,” was undoubtedly a rich source of information for his daughter because he participated in the sit-ins.
“I joined in 1960, which was two years after the sit-ins began,” said Bill. One of the reasons for his involvement begins with a harsh realization he had as a young adult.
“I was born and raised in Boston, and during my freshman year of college I worked at the Boston Public Library. The library closed at 10 p.m., and I had to take a trolley to get back to Roxbury where I lived. So it was nearly 11 when I had to pass by this bar where these people would be standing outside, all of them black. With my little books under my arms, I had to pass through what became a gauntlet. And as I passed through this gauntlet, it got very very quiet. Very quiet. And it dawned on me one night after I made the corner and was “safe” going up my street, “‘I wonder if this is what a black man feels like in a white community.’”
“When we were young, fear was not a conversation topic,” said Henderson. “We knew we were on a mission. We knew something was wrong with not having the same opportunities that everyone else had. But we didn’t know it was a movement.”
“We were young, we had no reason to be frightened,” said Jackson. “It was exciting just to know that we were going to get a chance to go to jail!” she laughed. “I got my chance to go to jail a couple of times, but we got out pretty fast. Ms. Luper shared with me that we had lots of angels watching over us. I didn’t know who those people were, but she later shared with me that they were people who were donating money to help us get out of jail,” Jackson said. “I’m honored that I was a part of Ms. Luper’s program.”
“I was seven years old, and I sat in until I was fourteen when the Civil Rights Act was passed,” said Najuma. “Having the opportunity to see the difference in my own growth and development over time was huge for me. I can say that was one of the contributing factors in me becoming the woman that I am today.”
The event concluded with a silent auction of donated items. For every dollar raised, Clifford will send a free link to “The Children of the Civil Rights” to a teacher in America. She hopes to send out over 100,000 links in the near future.