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Sunday, black leaders vowed to continue the fight for racial justice as they recalled past gains of the Oklahoma City Sit-ins 61 years ago and sanitation strike 50 years ago.

A service commemorating those two events was held at Fifth Street Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City with the Prospect Baptist Church choir providing music leadership.

The first-ever sit-in to protest segregation practices and laws was in Oklahoma City in 1958 at Katz Drug downtown. Emanating from that action, legalized segregation was eliminated in the city due to the sit-ins and efforts by local leaders.

The sanitation strike by black City of Oklahoma City garbage workers started in August 1969 and lasted for four months. The majority of the sanitation workers were black.

black leaders
Combined congregations of several churches and others join in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the commemoration of the OKC sit-ins and sanitation workers’ strike. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

The small group of white sanitation workers did not join the strike and tried to help break it without success.

The strike caused a four-month build-up of garbage in the city during some of the hottest months of every year.

It was settled without violence because of leadership in the black community and restraint among predominantly white city and police officials. Other cities in the late 1960s were plagued with riots.

Then and now

One of the 13 students of the Katz Drug sit-in was Ayanna Njuma, who was seven years old at the time.

She spoke with pride of the accomplishments of the sit-ins that forced segregated society to re-examine segregation and the race hatred that supported it.

But, she cautioned that the work is not complete.

“We’ve jumped to the 61st year, and we ask the question: Is it done?”

Her answer is that it is not done.

“We celebrate the work that has been done. But, whenever we pick up the newspaper every day or go online or hear that conversation at lunch we need to ask that question.” said Njuma.

“As you well know, a lot of times it means that we need to pull up and roll up our sleeves and say that the work has not been done. We’ve got more to do.”

She challenged the audience to focus on three words that were key to the sit-ins and could be used in today’s environment: “communicating, collaborating, and creating community.”

Others point to future

“Some of the same situations that we were confronted with, we’re confronted with now,” said current NAACP President Garland Pruitt.

“Sanitation workers stood up,” said Pruitt. “The sit-inners stood up. We have to stand up, speak up and demand something different.”

“We can never forget when we think about our ancestors and how they died. We think about how they took our kids, mothers and fathers and they separated us. And here in 2019, we got people in cages being separated from their kids, family,” Pruitt said.

Mayor Holt

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt spoke about the contributions the sit-ins and the sanitation strike had made to Oklahoma City.

“To the sanitation workers, families, to the pastors who were involved with that – and, as I say this, fully understand that I’m the mayor of the city – thank you for standing up,” Holt said.

Mayor Holt
Mayor David Holt thanks black leaders and people for helping to transform Oklahoma City for the better. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

He said that Oklahoma City would not be the thriving city it is today without the actions of the civil right’s leaders.

Then, he brought some news to the crowd about the upcoming MAPS 4 vote in December.

He mentioned the presentation that Clara Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, made to the City Council during the marathon MAPS 4 hearings in July and earlier in August.

Then he announced that the City Council will hear a proposal for MAPS 4 that would provide $25 million for the Freedom Center, the historic building on Martin Luther King Avenue just north of NE 23rd Street.

The audience applauded and some cheered.

Mayor Holt standing O
Mayor Holt receives a standing ovation at the end of his speech where he said $25 million could be dedicated to restoring the Freedom Center, once a hub of civil right activity in OKC. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

The Freedom Center is a building where organizing and training took place for other sit-ins, marches and demonstrations in the years following the first Katz Drug sit-in.

In recent years the building has fallen into disrepair and has been the center of disputes over it’s ownership. But, the ownership issue has been resolved and it is on the way to revitalization if the MAPS 4 item is voted into the package and voters approve it.

At the end of Holt’s speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation and more cheers came from the crowd.

History

Oklahoma City Public Schools teacher Clara Luper led 13 students, ages 6-13 to Katz Drug in downtown Oklahoma City in 1958 to sit at a lunch counter reserved for whites only and order a hamburger and a Coke.

It became a model for sit-ins later in Oklahoma City and throughout the U.S. at lunch counters, which were almost the only form of fast-food at the time.

Marilyn Luper Hildreth
Marilyn Luper Hildreth closes the service commemorating the sit-ins 61 years ago led by her mother, Clara Luper and the sanitation workers strike 50 years ago. Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press

In the popular Katz Drug store chain that stretched from Kansas City to Oklahoma City, black people were typically allowed to order but had to stand at the end of the counter and wait for the food to be brought to them in a paper bag. Then, they had to leave and eat their food elsewhere.

Over the two days of that first sit-in, students sat resolutely at the counter as white store employees and customers cursed at, and sometimes spat on them.

Luper and other civil rights leaders had carefully selected the students for the daunting task and trained them in preparation.

After two days one employee finally served a student a hamburger and that first sit-in was over. But others followed.



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