OKLAHOMA CITY – This week marks an important milestone in the Oklahoma civil rights movement.
It has been 60 years since the first lunch counter sit-in in Oklahoma City.
In 1958, change was sweeping down the plains.
The young, black Oklahomans of the NAACP Youth Council emerged at the forefront of the civil rights movement, organized by visionaries, Roscoe Dunjee and Clara Luper.
“(They were) taking Martin Luther King Junior’s philosophy of non-violent protest of pushing back gently against the system; letting people know segregation policies were not acceptable anymore,” said Oklahoma History Center historian Dr. Bob Blackburn.
The law of the land in 1958 was separate but equal which, of course, was a farce.
Blacks in Oklahoma were forced to drink out of segregated water fountains, attend segregated schools and eat at segregated restaurants.
Peaceful resistance brought out the cameras of WKY-TV; the original Channel 4.
The Oklahoma City chapter of the NAACP Youth Council organized the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins; 14 teenagers walked into Katz Drug Store on August 19, 1958.
Over the next few months, the demonstrators would hit John A. Brown’s Department Store lunch counter, Bishop Steakhouse, Woolworth’s and others.
They asked to be served alongside their white neighbors.
“With the power of television, which was new in the 1950’s, suddenly these events were happening in people’s living rooms,” said Dr. Blackburn. “It wasn’t some abstract idea that we are denying civil liberties to a group of people. These were children being denied service because of the color of their skin. (They were) trying to pull down this wall of segregation that had separated the races in Oklahoma since 1907.”
Reaction in Oklahoma City was swift and divided.
There were some who supported the youth council and the sit-ins, and others who preferred this community to remain segregated like much of the south.
The sit-ins were a new strategy in the civil rights movement.
The NAACP Youth Council wanted equal access to the lunch counter; equal respect at the soda fountain.
One at a time, Oklahoma City establishments served up a slice of humanity.
They desegregated largely on their own, long before they were forced to under federal law.
“It did not happen overnight,” said Dr. Blackburn. “People were frustrated it didn’t happen quicker. There were other people angry that it was happening at all. They liked it the way it had been in a segregated community.”
The Oklahoma sit-in movement caught on, spreading across the south; gently pushing back against the wall of segregation.
“Segregation had an impact on both sides of the tracks,” Dr. Blackburn said. “Yes, it was oppressive and denying civil rights to a group of people because of the pigment of their skin. But, it was also a disease on the rest of society.”
In Oklahoma, we discovered we are stronger united than divided.
Separate was not equal.
Bigotry is not the Oklahoma standard.
While the lunch counter sit-ins in the deep south often turned violent, the demonstrations here remained peaceful.
Seven years after the first lunch counter sit-ins in Oklahoma City, in 1965 Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act making it illegal to deny service on the basis of race.
It became the law of the land in all 50 states.