civil rights activist and OKC sit-in participant tells Edmond congregation

Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series of stories that explore how faith communities in Oklahoma have faced the issues of racism and bigotry.

EDMOND – Joyce Henderson recalls bowing her head in prayer along with other black youth and their adult counselors who had gathered at the Calvary Baptist Church in Deep Deuce.

The year was 1958 and Henderson was part of the NAACP youth council, led by civil rights icon Clara Luper. They planned to go to the Katz drugstore to incorporate the “white only” lunch counter as part of the so-called seating movement in Oklahoma City.

But first they asked the Lord for guidance and protection in their righteous cause.

“You didn’t picket until you prayed,” Henderson told a group of people who recently gathered at Edmond’s First Presbyterian Church, 1001s Rankin.

The former longtime educator and civil rights activist was the guest speaker during a session of “A Large Cloud of Witnesses: The Theology Behind the Civil Rights Movement”. The class will be taught by Rev. Eric Laverentz, Senior Secretary of First Presbyterian-Edmond. While studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, Laverentz took a course on the theology of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He eventually completed his thesis at Princeton and Vanderbilt University and explored the civil rights movement.

Rev. Eric Laverentz leads a prayer for civil rights activist Joyce Henderson at the end of a Wednesday evening class at the First Presbyterian Church in Edmond, where Laverentz is Senior Minister.

The eight-week class in the predominantly white congregation began in March and examines the biblical foundations of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The class meets every Wednesday until May 12th at 6pm.

Henderson spoke to about 40 people who had gathered in person and numerous others who were live-streaming on April 14th.

She said she was 16 when she started participating in the sit-ins led by Luper, who was her history teacher at Dunjee High School. Henderson laughed from the crowd when she said that Luper’s larger than life presence in the school and black community meant she was making a huge impact on her students. Most of them wanted to be part of the nonviolent movement to end segregation because their teacher was so passionate and they understood that they were being treated unfairly by whites-only institutions.

Henderson said she had to ask her parents to take part in the sit-ins and they allowed her to go because they believed in God and trusted Luper. She said the first Oklahoma City sit-in was in August 1958, and the local movement, in one form or another, had lasted about five years. She said the 63rd anniversary of the local movement will be in August this year.

The metropolitan woman pulled out a pocket-sized version of the U.S. Constitution and held it up at one point. She said the NAACP Youth Council had the right to peacefully assemble and protest the unjust, unconstitutional treatment imposed on the black community by Jim’s Crow Laws.

“We all want to be treated the same. We all want to be treated as human beings,” said Henderson.

Several people in the church asked the civil rights activist: How hard was it to be nonviolent during sit-ins? How long did the sitting movement take? How did belief play a role in the movement? What can people do now to fight racism?

Henderson said it was important not to get revenge when angry whites tried to harm sit-in participants. She said Luper stuck to that rule, so the teens stuck to it.

It wasn’t always easy.

She said she was once tempted to hit back a restaurant owner who deliberately hit her with the back door when he opened it during a sit-in protest.

“He knew I was there. I wanted to pinch him,” said Henderson. But, “As a child, you were taught not to fight back, not to fight back. And we didn’t.”

She said the beliefs of those involved in the movement kept her going. Henderson talked about meeting at Calvary Baptist for prayer before each sit-in, but she also said she was one of the young people Luper asked Luper to lead the group through singing spirituals and other hymns to keep them for the upcoming Inspire task.

“Leading songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’ were powerful,” she said.

The Reverend Eric Laverentz teaches the class with the title

Sit-ins were the “starting point”

One of the main themes of Henderson’s talk was her perspective that America has much more to do to eradicate racism and discrimination. She noted that some of the current issues of racial inequality are some of the same as in earlier times.

“Until we can stop discriminating, we will continue these talks,” she said.

Still, the civil rights activist said she was encouraged to protest against racism and bigotry by the diversity of race, ethnicity and social background of the current movement.

“The seat movement created a starting point,” she said. “When it started I didn’t know how important it was.”

In response to what could be done today to fight racism and bigotry, Henderson told the crowd that their participation in a faith-based class through the civil rights movement was an important step as dialogue was important.

She said it is also important that Church members hold the discussion “outside the four walls” of their place of worship in order to meaningfully influence friends, family and the surrounding community.

Henderson told class members that they can be good examples for others to emulate.

“I can assure you that someone is watching you treat someone else,” she said.

“Safe place” for discussion

Julianne Dunn, 45, a relatively new member of First Presbyterian-Edmond, said she learned a lot in class and particularly enjoyed Henderson’s presentation.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to really open this discourse. I know it feels like a can of worms at times, but I think a can of worms needs to be opened and we have a safe place to civilly about it talk and really go back, with all of those first-person interviews about what really happened, “Dunn said.

“I hope to find out again how, hopefully, we can do some of these things now to make a positive difference now. I’m excited about this opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Laverentz said he was delighted that Henderson agreed to share her experience with the class.

“It was great to hear from Joyce who has a perspective that we really need to hear and take seriously because she was part of something that was really transformative,” he said.

“I was really happy that people asked them how their Christian faith played a role and how their path with Christ played a role, because for me it is important that the church knows that our faith can move mountains too. ”

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