Bellingham filmmaker close to finishing documentary about historic civil rights protests in Oklahoma City


Bellingham filmmaker Julia Clifford expects to celebrate her upcoming 50th birthday with a special gift to herself.

She plans to finish her documentary about an important but little known civil rights protest in Oklahoma a half century ago, one that her father supported as a young man.

"I've been working on it pretty steadily for the last couple of years," Clifford said.

It's no small task to produce and direct a full-length documentary. Raising money is always a challenge. Time is a challenge, too, because Clifford also works as an accountant's assistant and is a practicing artist. Distance is a third challenge in her case, because Clifford and key crew members live in Whatcom County, but the story is based in the Midwest.

Her co-producer is Bob Ridgley, who runs Binary Recording Studio, near Bellingham.

Clifford, who grew up in Oklahoma, got the idea for the film after she asked her father about the high points in his life. He replied that he was one of the first white people to participate in early sit-in protests in Oklahoma City.

The protests were led by Clara Luper, a teacher and an NAACP youth advisor, and 13 children, ages 6 to 17.

Books about the civil rights era usually mention the "Greensboro Four," black college students in North Carolina who staged a sit-in after they were refused food service at a Woolworth's. That protest began Feb. 1, 1960. The Oklahoma City sit-ins started a year and a half earlier.

"I never heard of it growing up," Clifford said. "The more I got into it, I thought, 'This is a really big story that never got into the history books.'"

After writing letters and talking to civic leaders failed to halt segregation, Luper and the children staged a sit-in at a drugstore where blacks could only order food to go. When they sat and ordered Coca-Colas, the manager told them to leave and white customers cursed them. They remained seated, reading and praying until the store closed.

After two days of protests, the drugstore chain integrated its Midwest stores, but the protesters needed nearly three years to integrate Oklahoma City's largest department store. Their series of sit-ins, which covered six years, have been called the longest non-violent demonstration in U.S. history.

Clifford never realized her hope of interviewing Luper, so she focused more of her attention on the children.

"That's more the hidden side," she said. "It's the kids and the parents. They did it for six years."

The documentary will combine archival footage, new interviews and filmed segments, including a re-enactment of the sit-in staged with local actors at Diamond Jim's Grill, then on North State Street in Bellingham.

Clifford is finished filming her inteviews, including one with her father. She's now working on graphics, seeking a narrator and an actress to read from Luper's book, and raising money.

She hopes to produce a long version, perhaps two hours, to run on public television; a 90-minute version, or thereabouts, for theaters; and short segments for classroom use.

Clifford plans to screen the movie in Bellingham this fall to gauge audience reaction, then show it in Oklahoma City to raise money to take the film on the festival circuit.

There's still a lot of work to do, but Clifford, at last, can glimpse the finish line.

"I'm going to get my film done before I'm 50," she said.


More about the movie.

More about Julia Clifford.

Reach DEAN KAHN or call 715-2291.

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