OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - It’s not often that musical artist Jahruba is without one of his African drums or some other instrument good for melody-making.
But on a momentous day in 1958, he had only his courage - and the training of a savvy civil rights leader - to fortify him as he walked into Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City.
That day, he was simply shy Robert James Lambeth, a 14-year-old member of Clara Luper’s Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, participating in his first sit-in.
Luper’s guiding words went through Lambeth’s mind as he perused items in the store, waiting for an opportunity to take a seat at the lunch counter:
“Don’t bring any knives or other weapons. Always humble yourself and say your name loud and clear - no mumbling. If someone spits on you, don’t worry about it because we’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before us,” Lambeth remembers Luper telling her group.
The black youths had walked from Calvary Baptist Church into the downtown determined to challenge the Jim Crow laws that prohibited them from eating at “whites only” establishments.
Lambeth, 70, told The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1CK9S2r) he had no idea as he made the trek with Luper, that he was marching his way into history.
The musician is known throughout the state as a performer whose talent for singing, songwriting and storytelling pairs well with his abilities on the African drums and other instruments.
He said his role as one of Luper’s young “freedom fighters” is not so well known but he enjoys sharing stories about his experiences when he gets the opportunity.
Now a resident of Norman, Lambeth said he grew up in a home on NE 4 Street in the Deep Deuce area. He said his connection to Luper initially came through her son, Calvin Luper, because the two became friends when they attended elementary school together.
Lambeth said he was also the Lupers’ neighbor, living just a few houses down from the family. He said Clara Luper was like a mother to him.
So it seemed natural that he joined the NAACP Youth Council, led by Clara Luper, and sat patiently with other young people as they received her training on how to participate in the nonviolent sit-ins.
Lambeth said he wasn’t scared or nervous during the sit-ins, though it was considered dangerous by some because of the way the young people were treated by whites who supported segregation. He said he was kicked and spat on a couple of times as he sat with other young people on the sidewalks outside the segregated establishments and sometimes people would hit the youths with raw eggs.
Lambeth said Luper trained them to meet this adversity in a stoic manner. They were instructed to go into the targeted establishments like Katz under the guise of shopping because they were allowed to spend their money there but prohibited from eating at the “whites only” lunch counters. Luper told the youths to take a seat at the counter as soon as white customers vacated the spot.
At his first sit-in, the white woman behind the counter informed Lambeth that they didn’t serve “colored.”
“That’s OK. I’m going to sit here until you do,” he remembers telling her.
As so often happened, when the counter was filled with black youths, the drug store management called the police. Lambeth said this scenario happened many times, not just at Katz but other establishments. Often the police brought the “paddy wagons,” the police vehicles used for hauling off groups of criminals to jail.
Lambeth said he was taken to jail several times. Luper wasn’t deterred and as long as the unjust Jim Crow laws were in place, she took her youth group out into the community to challenge them.
Lambeth said one of the more interesting sit-ins occurred when Luper made telephone reservations for 20 at a restaurant near the airport. The wait staff refused service when Luper and her youth council arrived at the establishment, but Lambeth said he and others in the group already had sat down and begun eating the salads that had been set at their waiting tables.
The restaurant’s manager came out eventually and said he had decided to serve the group after all. Lambeth chuckled as he described heartily digging into his $12 steak and baked potato along with the other youth.
Lambeth said the thing was, Luper evidently had not expected the restaurant to capitulate on the first try and the group did not have enough money to pay the bill. He said the police were called and sure enough, the paddy wagons began to arrive.
Lambeth said the group was kept from jail upon the timely arrival of one of the youth council’s attorneys who brought a check to pay for the dinners.
He said another success story involved a group called the Minutemen Commandos which he was elected to lead. Lambeth said this group was made up of many of the same NAACP youth council members but designed to gather quickly when there was an immediate need for a protest of some sort.
Lambeth said the group decided to boycott Al’s ice cream store at NE 19 and Lottie Avenue because the owner refused to hire blacks to scoop the ice cream even though the neighborhood that he served was predominantly black.
Lambeth said the police hauled the group off to jail several times as they stood outside the ice cream store with boycott signs. He said they kept going back, and after about three weeks, the store’s owner hired a local black youth to scoop the icy treat.
“Black people had stopped getting his ice cream, so he hired a black guy finally,” Lambeth said, smiling.
Lambeth said his journey as one of the NAACP freedom fighters eventually found him on a bus headed to Washington, D.C., with Luper.
He said the civil rights activist had helped the youths raise money and support to make the trip with the hope of getting to see the charismatic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lambeth said the crowd gathered for the historic 1963 March on Washington was huge and the Oklahoma City group didn’t get close enough to see King.
But, most importantly, they did hear him as he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lambeth said he gets chills thinking about hearing King’s words firsthand amid the large crowd. He said even though he had participated in the sit-ins in Oklahoma City, he still didn’t grasp the importance of that historic moment and dream of a colorblind society that King shared that day.
His drums and his music eventually brought him full circle in more ways than one.
Lambeth said he ended up in San Francisco after graduating from Douglass High School in 1962, a brief stint at the University of Oklahoma and two years serving in the military. He said there were people in a park in the Bay Area who spent much of their Saturdays playing African drums and they taught him how to play the musical instruments.
“From there, the drum did everything else. It became a magnet for me,” he said.
Lambeth said he went on to earn his bachelor of arts degree in black studies from San Francisco University. He said he found that his experiences as a participant of the civil rights movement coupled with African cultural knowledge gleaned from his education could be used to share history, culture and music with schools and communities in Oklahoma.
He said he has led several musical bands over the years and still performs as Jahruba and the Jahmystics.
However, he has loved being able to travel all over the metro area and throughout the state to places like Ponca City, Enid and Granite to share African culture and black history with others.
For him, coming full circle with his past included pairing up with Clara Luper during several presentations at schools and community events.
“I was so honored when I came back and they would book me with her. It was my mentor who had raised me and now I was performing with her,” Lambeth said.
And to his delight, he wrote a song about the sit-in movement and Luper and got the opportunity to play it for her before she died in 2011.
“The spirit of Clara got in me,” he said, nodding his head.
Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com
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