Sit-In Special

Youth claim their own space in documentary film

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fifty years ago, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. Their destination was the state capital of Montgomery, some 54 miles away. And though they sang “We Shall Overcome,” marchers did not get far. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma.

While the courage of the Selma marchers electrified the country in March of 1965, another protest was unfolding in the cafes and shops in the streets of Oklahoma City that also had a profound and lasting effect.

For six years, Oklahoma City kids conduct sit-ins with their youth adviser, Clara Luper. They start in 1958, a year and a half before the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins. In 1960, whites join and together, the group demonstrate until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act takes place. It never gets violent, it never really makes national news, but, just about every restaurant in Oklahoma City desegregates before the Civil Rights Act becomes law.

No one knew that a group of children in Oklahoma City were heroes, not even the children themselves. For six years, a group of kids went into restaurants and asked for service. It never got violent; it never made national news; but, together, they turned around every restaurant except one before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Fifty years later, Children of the Civil Rights documentary film shares their sixoyear odyssey to freedom.

The power is in the strength of the young, says director and Bellingham artist Julia Clifford.

“I grew up in Oklahoma, yet I never heard this story until eight years ago,” Clifford said. “I was shocked and so impressed by what these kids did. I knew then that I wanted to share this story with audiences across America and what better medium than film to do just that? It’s the non-violent action by these kids that captures your heart as you witness them win the fight against segregation.”

Clifford met Ayanna Najuma eight years ago when she first started filming.

“Ayanna was one of the original children we interviewed for the film,” Clifford said. “She was only seven when the kids went downtown to Katz Drugstore, August 19, 1958. Ayanna participated all six years. I can’t imagine what that was like but, I am glad she and her friends did what they did.”

In order to bring this film to life, Julia Clifford, a multi-media artist and native of Oklahoma, teamed up with Bob Ridgley of Binary Recording Studio. Ridgely has produced audio and video productions for over 25 years in Bellingham, with films such as Mt. Baker Hard Core; American Collectors, a film about people who collect things, and his newest film called Bean to Bar, a film about chocolate and the top artisan chocolate makers in America.

Cascadia Weekly: An an artist and creative spirit, this film has been a labor of love for you for several years. Tell me about how you became aware of these events and how they inspired you.

Julia Clifford: For more than six years a group of Oklahoma kids went around to every restaurant throughout their whole city, and were very successful about helping to integrate those places and usher in civil rights. They were very successful and things never got violent, never made national news—except once, when Charlton Heston came to town and marched with them. That surprised me!

The film is about the strength of the young, and it tries to place their story a bit more into the national civil rights story.

I grew up in Oklahoma, and I never heard this story until I spoke with my father about it years afterward.

CW: You discovered you had a personal connection to their story.

JC: Yes; about eight years ago, I asked my dad what his most significant moments were in life, and he started talking about participating in sit-ins in Oklahoma City. I looked into it, and discovered it was kids that instigated these events initially,  through NAACP youth groups. The youth leaders asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He said, “Yes.” They would sit in places together, black and white, to call attention to rules in place against that.

My dad became close friends with several of these youth leaders. A few of them came to call my mom and dad “Mom and Dad.” One of them was Ayanna Najuma.

I started my documentary research eight years ago, and that led to the beginning of filming seven years ago. We interviewed a core group of six of the kids that were part of the sit-ins, and we spoke with more by phone.

CW: What was the effect of these sit-ins, what changed in Oklahoma as a result of them?

JC: Before the sit-ins, every restaurant was segregated. Some of them changed their policy within a week of a sit-in; these were mostly national restaurant chains. Others took longer. One restaurant did not change its policy for four years, and were afraid that their regular customers would stop coming in. But the youths were always respectful, dressed in their Sunday best, and eventually won the argument, they won the restaurant over.

CW: It’s a remarkable story, given the angry events unfolding in other parts of the country, in states right next door to Oklahoma.

JC: Yes; the police worked with the youth leaders as well as the community to make sure these events were safe. Even during one event, where customers had to step over the kids to get inside, where they had done something illegal and got arrested, police tried to work with all sides. In other instances, where a white adult spit on or poured coffee of the kids, both were arrested. In this way, the police stayed neutral, and the press stayed neutral. In other places in the South, the police and press agitated conditions.

The governor in Oklahoma played a part, too. He said, “Federal law is federal law.”

I think it was because kids were at the center of the demonstrations, and because it was kids faced off against adults, it really set the foundation for making it a nonviolent protest.

To me, these kids really demonstrated how you implement change, patiently and persistently.

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