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Bellingham pair create film about early civil rights protests in Oklahoma City

It took a contingent of black kids and their adult supporters six years to quietly desegregate all but one restaurant in Oklahoma City in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

It took Bellingham filmmaker Julia Clifford longer than that to document their mostly forgotten feat.

Now, nine years from her initial spark of interest in the subject, Clifford’s one-hour film will premier in Bellingham at Pickford Film Center in February.

“Children of the Civil Rights” arrives amid heightened awareness about race relations in the country, including recent protests over police conduct in black communities, and the 50th anniversary in March of the pivotal march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.

Clifford said the early campaign in Oklahoma City is a reminder that people can bring about positive change without turning to violence.

“This film shows how powerful nonviolence is, and how important youth are in making change,” she said. “It will speak to the young of today.”

Father supported sit-ins

During a 2006 visit to see her family in Oklahoma City, Clifford asked her father about the high points in his life. Her father told her he had been the first white person to participate in civil rights protests there, protests that Clifford never heard about while attending school in Oklahoma City.

Clifford’s father was a 22-year-old student teacher and a member of Young Christian Workers, a Catholic organization, when he joined the sit-ins in late 1960. He participated for about seven months before he moved and started a family.

Clifford, an artist and an accountant’s assistant, had made a few short films, but once she learned about the protests she began researching information, conducting interviews, and gathering new and archival footage for a documentary.

Bob Ridgley, who has made several films and owns Binary Recording Studio near Bellingham, agreed to work with Clifford on the project.

“Once I heard a little about the story, I thought ‘This is something I want to be involved in,’” he said. “This is something that meant something to me.’

History books about the civil rights movement usually mention the “Greensboro Four,” four black college students in North Carolina who stayed in their seats after they were refused service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. That was Feb. 1, 1960.

Books are less likely to mention the Oklahoma City sit-ins that began a year and a half earlier, or sit-ins even earlier in Wichita, Kan.

The story in Oklahoma City began in 1957 when Clara Luper, a high school teacher and the adviser to an NAACP youth council, wrote a play about Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy is being celebrated Monday, Jan. 19. Luper and the student cast were invited to perform the play in New York. Along the way they enjoyed meals at integrated lunch counters, but that enjoyment ended when they returned home.

So for a year and a half they wrote letters, talked to business leaders and asked churches for help desegregating their hometown. When nothing changed, they decided to hold nonviolent sit-ins, starting Aug. 19, 1958.

It was decided that youngsters would participate in the sit-ins, on the theory that their presence might reduce the risk of violence. Their first target was Katz Drug Store, where blacks could only order food to go.

Luper and 13 youths, ages 7 to 17, walked in, sat down and ordered Coca-Colas. The manager told them to leave. White customers cursed them. Police and reporters arrived. Luper and the children remained seated, reading and praying, until the store closed, then left.

After two days of protests, the Katz chain integrated all of its Midwest outlets. The protesters won quick integration of two other chain businesses, but they needed several years of sit-ins to integrate Oklahoma City’s largest and locally owned department store.

Their sit-ins continued until 1964, with Luper going to jail 26 times. The documentary includes a re-creation of a sit-in, filmed at Diamond Jim’s Grill when it was on North State Street in Bellingham.

Luper wanted the protests to stay nonviolent, and while a customer splashed coffee on one youth, a man punched a young protestor, and some of the kids were jostled, spit on and stepped on, matters never got too far out of control.

“It never erupted,” Clifford said.

She said the absence of full-on violence reflected, in part, the newness of the sit-ins ... that people weren’t sure how to respond. Also, Oklahoma was peopled with independent-minded land rush settlers, she said, and about a third of the residents did not hail from the Deep South, where anti-black laws and practices were common practice.

“Jim Crow wasn’t ingrained from generation to generation,” Clifford said.

She also learned that Oklahoma City’s police chief worked to keep matters civil, and that local reporters’ stories mostly told the news without trying to agitate against the protesters.

A majority of the original 13 kids were interviewed for the film, including Ayanna Najuma, who plans to attend the Bellingham premiere. Ridgley said he was struck by the strength and focus of the adults those kids became.

“They’re not your average folks,” he said. “Their passion for being an American is something I don’t hear that often. They worked very hard to be part of America.”

Bellingham premiere

What: Special showing of “Children of the Civil Rights” documentary by Julia Clifford and Bob Ridgley.

When: Thursday, Feb. 26.

Where: Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St., Bellingham

Tickets: $10.75, available at Pickford ticket counter and online at Pickford Film Center.

Time: Event begins 5:30 p.m. with meet-and-greet, wine, cheese and start of silent auction. The one-hour film starts at 6:15, following by question-and-answer panel discussion. Silent auction ends at 8 p.m. Proceeds support use of archival photographs and film footage.

Help: People who quickly donate to help offset production costs can have their name listed in the film credits. Call Clifford at 360-305-7837.

Movie trailer, details: