I recently read an op-ed piece by Andrew B. Lewis for the Los Angeles Times (“The Sit-ins That Changed America,” 1/31/10). Lewis began the piece:
“The ‘Sixties’ were born on February 1, 1960, 50 years ago last week, when four African-American college students staged the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.”
Lewis went on to explain how the sit-ins sparked by the Greensboro example revitalized the civil rights movement, which had floundered after failed attempts to integrate southern schools after the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the successful but foregone Montgomery bus boycott. Lewis also went on to talk about how the students involved in these sit-ins formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to preserve their independence from the NAACP and the resulting rise of significant young leaders like John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, and Marion Barry. The success of the civil rights movement thereafter was largely the result of the aggressive egalitarian pattern set by these student protesters, Lewis noted. Because of these, our country was permanently and significantly changed.
Only, there were sit-ins in Oklahoma City starting in August 1958 that pre-dated the events in North Carolina. The NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City desegregated literally hundreds of restaurants and public spaces between 1958 and 1964. Their primary shepherd in this was Clara Luper, an activist with the NAACP. Interestingly, in Oklahoma, it’s the women who most often are the rebels fomenting change. Luper never got national credit for her leadership like Bond and Carmichael, et al, and the Oklahoma City sit-ins didn’t spark a chain of similar events around the American south. One has to wonder why. How is it that Greensboro has become a symbol in our memories but Oklahoma City has been lost to our national consciousness? I teach my students from a textbook that marks the beginning of the sit-in movement in North Carolina, and we in Oklahoma know better. We know that it came here first (or, rather, second if you count the Virginia library sit-in from the 1930′s). We also know that the rest of the country didn’t notice. I bet most other Americans didn’t even know there was segregation in Oklahoma. They probably also didn’t know that it was a couple of court cases from Oklahoma that desegregated public universities in the United States. Our state was a pivotal part of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, only the rest of the country didn’t pay any attention to it.
So, the question is: if a civil rights protest happens in Oklahoma and no one else notices it, did it really happen?