Episode 2: Civil Rights with Ayanna Najuma
On August 19, 1958, 7-year-old Ayanna Najuma, and a group of 12 students together with a High School teacher named Clara Luper, set the stage for a civil rights protest that would sweep the nation in the 1960’s and continues to resonate in modern America through movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his practice of nonviolent protest, the plan was simple. The students would occupy the ‘white’ only lunch counter of a drug store called Katz and ask ask to be served a hamburger and a coca-cola. When they were inevitably denied service on the grounds that the lunch counter was for ‘whites only’ they would refuse to leave and stay seated in their seats until closing.
This sit-in protest was one of the first in the civil rights movement, happening 18 months before black college students took seats at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Over the next six years, Ayanna and her fellow civil rights demonstrators, led one of the longest nonviolent sit-in protests in the United States desegregating almost every eating establishment in their home city of Oklahoma’s capital.
was just 7-years-old when on a hot august day she took her place on a stool embracing a passion and purpose that would not only have an impact on her life, but arguably the life of every American who has come after.
This is her story.
In this inspiring conversation, you will learn:
- How a small group of kids embraced passion and purpose to change central America.
- What they did when faced with people who had a passion about keeping the status quo.
- Why we all need to find our voice and lock on to passion and purpose.
SOME QUESTIONS I ASK MS. NAJUMA:
- Where did you draw your courage from to stand up for what you believed in?
- Did you realize the bigger picture impact that you could have if successful?
- How did your sit-in years impact your later life?
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this episode. Who was your inspiration for following Passion & Purpose?
Thanks so much for listening!
Click To Read The Full Podcast Transcript
Richard Janes Commentary: This week’s episode premiers to coincide with the culmination of Black History Month, and I’m excited to introduce you to a civil rights story that is known by very few Americans, but it’s this story and its heroes that ultimately set the stage for a movement that would eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act which finally outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations.
So I’m going to take you back to August 19th, 1958 and a group of 13 high school students a high school teacher named Mrs. Clara Luper who would set the stage for a civil rights protest that would sweep the nation.
Inspired by Dr. King and his teachings of nonviolent protest, their plan was simple. The students would occupy the white-only lunch counter of a drug store called Katz and asked to be served a hamburger and a Coca-Cola. When they were inevitably denied service on the grounds at the lunch counter for “whites only,” they would refuse to leave and stay seated in their seats until closing.
This sit-in protest was one of the first in the Civil Rights Movement, happening a full 18 months before the black college students took seats at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Over the next six years, the now-famed high school teacher and her students, together with the support of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, led one of the longest nonviolent sit-in protests in the United States, these segregating almost every eating establishment in their home city of Oklahoma’s capital.
My guest today was one of those students. She was just 7 years old when on a hot August day, she took her place on a stool embracing her passion and purpose that would not only have an impact on her life but arguably the life of every American who has come after. Her name is Ayanna Najuma.
Ayanna Najuma: Mrs. Luper had written a play called Brother President. Very well received here. Someone from the NAACP in New York saw the play and they decided that they wanted to invite her to bring the cast, initially a very small number of people, to New York to present the play. She decided that she wanted to us to take routes: to go to New York on the Greyhound bus. We took the northern route.
When you’re going north, there’s a great deal of equality in that process so we were able to stop at bus stations, we were able to stop at restaurants, a variety of things on the northern route without any discrimination. Got to New York City, stayed in hotels next door to rooms of white people, were able to build restaurants and have meals just like anyone else. It was a totally equitably society. Had a blast.
Coming back, we took the southern route.
So all the things that we saw here in Oklahoma, meaning the white and colored signs, the filthy waiting rooms for colored – all those kind of things, we saw those. There was no equity in that process in terms of being able to stop and use the bathroom that was clean, not being to stop and get food. None of that happened. So you’re going back to North Carolina and South Carolina and Alabama in these different southern states and you’re seeing all the stuff that we saw when we were living here in Oklahoma.
So when we got back, the kids sat amongst themselves and had a conversation about “Wow, look what we saw in New York. Wasn’t that fabulous? This was amazing! Why can’t we do that here?”
And Mrs. Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, said like, “Wow! Can we do something like that here?” It didn’t happen immediately because what happened was, the adults had conversations with the powers that be, meaning the elected officials, the power brokers here in Oklahoma City and they were saying, “We can’t make those people let you eat in their restaurant if they don’t want to. They own that restaurant. It’s all up to them who their clientele is going to be.”
And that went on for about a year and a half. And then, it’s when we finally said enough is enough. Told the adults what we wanted to do and so decided to sit it in at Katz Drugstore.
Richard Janes Commentary: It doesn’t matter if you are 7 years old or 77 years old. When passion and purpose takes hold, you have but two choices: embrace it, letting it take you wherever it might lead, or suppress it, giving in to the fear and established expectations of the status quo.
In many cases, as with Ayanna and her friends, that transition to action is not a smooth one. It is wrought with weighing out the risks of making a stand for what you believe in.
And here’s the thing. Many people believe that the choice is between action and inaction, with the inaction part of the equation being accepting things for how they are. And whilst the situation might not be perfect, at least you know where you stand. But once you ask yourself the question of whether you should do something or not, once your eyes have been opened to the possibility of something different, the option of things simply going back to how they once were is off the table.
The only options now available is either moving forwards towards change or making the commitment that you can live in the knowledge that when opportunity was there for the taking, you didn’t stand up. But no matter what the decision you make, you will never – I repeat – you will never be able to go back to how it once was.
For Ayanna and her friends and their parents, they were reminded each and every day what the action of acceptance would mean for how they lived their life.
Ayanna Najuma: In general you had the white and colored signs for water. The same thing with restaurants. When you would go downtown to buy clothes, you could not try on clothes in the stores, you’d have to buy them and take them home and figure it out.
When you were on the train, they had a certain section for black people to sit, certain section for white people to sit, even on the bus it’s coloreds and whites. And you know the stories about the Montgomery bus situation.
So anything that separated people that could happen in society was happening. And then my mother was good friends with Clara Luper. They were like best friends. And so anything that would help us grow as a person, my mother would put us into. And so going to NAACP Youth Council meetings, they were major players back in the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of the civil rights movement and there was a youth council in an adult chapter as well, so we got very involved, my sister and I got very involved in the youth council at a very young age.
It did a variety of things for us. It not only allowed us to learn about advocacy and activism and needless to say, the sit-in movement came as a result of that, and Gandhi and the messaging from Dr. King, “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, in your own worth and your own somebodiness.”
Also it allowed us to travel around the country to NAACP national conventions where most children, their parents wouldn’t even let them leave town and we were able to go to conventions on the bus and stay in hotels and meet children that were from other cities that we may not have even come in contact with just being here in Oklahoma. And so it gave us another perspective on the world that most children just didn’t get.
Richard Janes Commentary: With these experiences and the support and encouragement of their parents and the NAACP, they woke up on a bright and early Tuesday morning with the heat of the August summer still beating down, they got dressed in their Sunday best and they headed to Katz Drugstore on Oklahoma City’s downtown main street.
Ayanna Najuma: We would walk in, we were all dressed in our little church clothes and we would walk in and everybody was very respectful to the waitresses and asked for a hamburger and a Coke, and like I said, the waitresses were not nice people.
“What are you doing here?”
“Go ahead and take your stuff and leave, you know, you’re not supposed to be here. Get out!”
And then when Mrs. Luper was there…
“Hey, you know you’re not supposed to have these kids down here. What are you doing with these kids?”
“They shouldn’t be in here. Get these kids out of here!”
Because what was happening is, you couldn’t sit at the lunch counter. You had to take your food and eat it outside or in the alley or wherever you could find a spot, and that was across the entire south. So we would come in, sit there, sometimes the kids would have their books, just sit there and read. But when people would say nasty things, we would just smile and keep it respectful.
People would say horrible things to us. They would say nasty things to us. They would pour coffee on us, they would do things that you wouldn’t think that would be done because we were children. And they would do it in front of their children, which even made it more embarrassing when I look back on it over the years that what kind of example are you setting for your child.
But what had happened was we had gone through a boot camp – I called it a boot camp – where we were taught about the philosophy of Gandhi and Dr. King about how to carry ourselves if we were spoken to in a certain kind of way or someone spat on us or if we were pushed and knocked down, how to respond to those types of things. And so it was very easy to keep the momentum of nonviolence at a very high level because we were trained for like, you know, when you go into the military, they train you how to act in certain type of situations and that’s what happened with us.
The bottom line theory behind that was these people really don’t know me. They don’t know me the person, they don’t realize that there’s something that we both have in common and so we’re just going to see them in a loving place. That’s the mindset that we were taught, that they really don’t have an idea that we’re all the same. It’s just they got a problem. So, we were just going to do it that way.
But over time, for the next 7 years, you had whites coming to be a part of the sit-in movement, you had adults coming to be a part of the sit-in movement. You had Charlton Heston who, you know, did Ben-Hur, he came here from California to be a part of the sit-in movement.
“Two years ago, I picketed some restaurants in Oklahoma, but with that one exception – up until very recently – like most Americans I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties, I’m afraid. But again like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now.”
Ayanna Najuma: The Hollywood community started to realize that they had to be more than just a pretty face on the silver screen. And so people were starting to realize that “This is not right. That person is just like me.” So you the water fountain that says ‘colored’ and you see the one that says ‘white’ and then the children, black and white children saying “What, is the water that’s going to come out of there colored? Is it a different color?”
And then there’s a couple people I know that grew up in this era that were white and Jewish and their parents took them places and they would drink out of the different water fountains and it’s like, “Well, it’s the same color of water coming out of here,” you know. “So why are they making those people drink out of the ‘colored’ fountain and I’m having to drink out of the ‘white’ fountain?”
Richard Janes: That’s all very easy to… Well, I say it’s very easy. That’s all very understandable to be able to process as an adult. You were 7 years old sitting at that counter.
Ayanna Najuma: I think it’s probably a lot easier. Like I said, we went through a boot camp, so we went through the whole process of what non-violence meant. We went through a whole process of what equity and equality meant. We went through this whole process that I have been told all of my life that I was just as good as but not better than. So I am worthy.
And then when you look at from the I say political or academic perspective of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, you’re entitled to that. We were taught that. It’s just that these people hadn’t got the memo that, you know, that I’m entitled to be here, I’m entitled to be able to sit here. You made a decision that you don’t want to serve me.
Richard Janes Commentary: And it’s this phrase written by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence that has become synonymous with the lure of America. In its entirety it reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Now, two things have always jumped out at me with this phrase. The first is that they say all men, not just American men or white men. And in line with this, there’s a great deal of academic argument, that in the context of the times, the use of the phrase ‘all men’ was a euphemism for humanity, which would also include women.
Secondly, it always struck me that they say ‘their Creator’, not the ‘the Creator’. Now I interpret these to mean that no matter who you are, where you are, or who you believe your creator to be, America was founded under the principle that you as a human being had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And it’s that pursuit of happiness that underscores the passion and purpose that we speak of in this podcast series.
Every day we make numerous choices in deciding what course of action will add to our own cup of happiness, making the choice to pursue happiness, to embrace that which you are passionate about and brings purpose is your right and yours for the taking. And Ayanna and her friends took their right to pursue their happiness that August.
Ayanna Najuma: Initially, it was 13 children, all black kids, African American children that went in and sat down and asked to be served. That’s how it started. We sat there for three days and then at the third day, they decided that they wanted to change their policy and they had drug stores in Kansas, in Arkansas, I think in Missouri and across the board, all that changed.
Richard Janes: Did you understand that bigger purpose that you enrolled in at the age of 7?
Ayanna Najuma: I did. I was taught to believe that anything I wanted to do, I could do. That I was just as good as anybody but not better than anybody. So with the positive attitudes and perseverance and just hard work, the sky was the limit. And so being able to feel like you should be able to go in and sit down and be very respectful to someone and order, a hamburger and a Coke is something that I was taught that I was entitled to.
I had a conversation recently with a woman, a white woman who her dad used to work downtown in one of the department stores and how even though she was white, her dad tried to explain it to her that that wasn’t the right thing. But of course people are not very courageous in terms of taking action themselves. So even though it may have been a white person sitting at the lunch counter that may have thought “Oh, this is not right. Let me get up and let them sit down where I am,” they were not going to take that chance.
Richard Janes: But you did.
Ayanna Najuma: I did.
Richard Janes: At the age of 7 you start in Katz Drugstore. Three days later, they’ve changed their policy and it’s affecting Katz Drugstores across many states. So then you move on to other restaurants, getting them to change their policy and you devote 7 years of your life to doing this. At the end of those 7 years, a big change, the civil rights movement has come into fruition in a big way as a platform across America. You stopped the sit-ins. How did you feel at that moment thinking “I’ve dedicated half of my life to sitting in and I’m no longer doing it”?
Ayanna Najuma: I felt a certain degree of accomplishment needless to say. I mean, if you make a list of all the restaurants that we went through, we could check off this one, that one, this one, this one, and then you start to look back on some of the relationships you’ve developed with people that you didn’t know. There I am, a 7-year-old kid and now I’m a teenager.
Different kind of story. Different type of conversation even in terms of my own growth and development as a person because there were certain things that I was able to do now as a teenager that I wasn’t able to do before. You look back on all these people, all these things that have happened and you say to yourself was it really worth it – and it was. To be able to walk into any store, to be able to go in a water fountain, all the public accommodation inequities are now gnashed off the colored list, gnashed off the white.
Change is a very difficult thing for people. I don’t care whether it’s now I’m single and now I’m married, or whether not we’re going from… I can go into any restaurant or I can go into any restroom, you know, and you still got people that are not quite buying into the process, which is what we’re finding ourselves I think happening in society today. We’re back peddling. I never took anything for granted. What I did take for granted was that I’m entitled to be there. But what’s happened is the politics of the world has put this big ugly sign in front of us that says that you’re not worthy. I don’t care whether you’re in Iran or Iraq, Afghanistan or whether you’re right here in America and some of the politicians are trying to put those inequities back in our face whether it’s oppression, doing things, changing laws that make it impossible for people to be able to vote, asking for IDs to be able to go to vote.
Richard Janes: You know it’s the biggest thing as an Englishman moving to America that surprised me, was how segregated this country still is.
Ayanna Najuma: Well, I would say the most segregated time in America is on Sunday morning at church.
Richard Janes: How sad is that.
Ayanna Najuma: It is. And now, when you talk about whether it’s segregated because of race, now it becomes segregated because of gender. We don’t want the trans here or we don’t want the gays here and “no, we’re not going to marry those…” I had that conversation with someone the other day. And they ended up using the word ‘sin’ to mean all those gay people are, you know, and I was like, that’s some judgment there. First of all, you judge somebody and now you’re saying that God says that who you are in the most perfect way is not acceptable. It really concerns me when I hear those conversations.
But that same thing happened in terms of slavery. Slave owners tried to use the bible to interpret the inequity of life and say that it was all good. “We’re all the same and you’re supposed to be picking cotton for me.” Just a lot of things that we thought were finished are popping their heads up. And if you start to look at things historically, you’re saying “Knock on it, if it really made any progress.”
Richard Janes: So you’re clearly and understandably incredibly passionate about civil rights and the importance of youth having a voice as you did when you were 7 through to 14. Looking back now, if you were to define what passion really means to you, what would you say?
Ayanna Najuma: Passion for me is going for the gusto. Me being able to be my best Ayanna. What’s on the inside of me that is God-given, that allows me to share it with another person to be able to touch them in a special way where they’re able to be the best they can be.
And so there have been people that have done things for me and they said “Well, I didn’t know you but it was just something about you that made me want to resonate with you.” I would tell children to see the value, the goodness in themselves no matter whether your cousin or your mama said to you “you ain’t nothing, you’re just going to be like your daddy. He was crap.” You’re saying you’re coming from this place, a very high elevated place of perfection. And if you start there, then how can you not get everything that you’re entitled to? How can you not have the passion, how can you not identify your purpose because it comes from all kinds of a book, a song that you heard. Guys, you’re entitled to the best that life has to offer. So why shouldn’t I be able to look inside myself every day and be able to tap into the essence of who I am? Some people don’t get it. They wake up in the morning and because they’re not accustomed to it, because they’re not trained to have it, they don’t see even that word in their vocabulary that they could be passionate, excited about life. The excitement that life brings.
And so I tell children wake up in the morning, I say “Ayanna Najuma, you are the best that God created. Glad to make a difference in someone’s life today. Let the beauty of that person see the beauty in me, and me be able to see the beauty in them.” And when you’re able to do that and affirm that on a consistent basis, you start to buy into it even though at the beginning of that process you may not have believed it, but over time the response that you receive from other people starts to affirm that you are that amazing person.
I’ve seen people that folks would totally disregard, wouldn’t have given them a thought. But when I see the little kids wearing glasses on, I always go up and tell them “My God, those glasses are so cool!” “My God, I bet you’re just as smart and attractive as those glasses are.” Or I may see a young woman that’s a Down Syndrome person and there’s something about that person that I can say to them, I’ve never done it in a place of not being sincere and I’ve seen women that was like “Oh my God,” which was true, “That’s an amazing outfit you’re wearing today. Did anybody tell you that?” “No.” “Well you look amazing. You really fabulous.”
And so I think we have to find something in the other person that allows to pull that word of excitement, you call it passion, out so they can be able to maximize the potential that they have because that’s what life is supposed to be about. I kept thinking to myself, Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful where everyone wakes up every day with a degree of enthusiasm, excitement about their own lives so therefore they can go out and make a difference in someone else’s life.
But sometimes you do have to step outside of yourself and walk in Starbucks and you see this person that’s standing behind the counter and you know that they did not have a good day, and you say to them, “Good morning. I’m so glad to see you today.” “Wow, my day wasn’t going to be the same unless I saw you today.”
And they look around, “Are you talking about me?” “Yeah, I’m talking about you.” You know, and it changes their whole attitude about life because some people think “nobody cares about me.” I think that’s what happens with people that are committing suicide and they always say “Well, didn’t Robert… couldn’t he have called me?” Well, if Robert could have called you, Robert would have called you. But what happens is we get so enthralled in our own crap that we don’t have time for another person. So what happened was when I first started my company, you call the office and I say it’s a great day yet, and there were times later on in my office that people would call and say “I just wanted to hear somebody say ‘it’s a great day yet’ because my day wasn’t going so good. I needed someone to affirm that it was a great day,” and I said, “Well, that’s what we do here.”
Well, I’m happy to remind you that you’re having a great day. You may not realize at the moment but it’s there. You don’t know the number of people that you have touched in your life, but there are hundreds of people that you’ve just taken the time out to find a moment to give them some attention.
So what is your life purpose? Is your life purpose, is your ability to step outside of yourself to be able to be of service to another person? For me that’s my life purpose. I see my life purpose as being a communicator, I see my life purpose as being an educator and that could happen whether I’m doing a radio show, I was speaking before a body of people, or whether that’s writing an article. But that’s my ability to empower you to see the good in you in order for you to be able contribute to the planet.
Some years ago I said to myself, what is your life purpose? I see you coming to this world to learn lessons and then from the lessons that you learn, to contribute back to society. And the lessons come from all kind of places. Sometimes they come from children, sometimes they come from animals. And I’ve been thinking about my own life and I was thinking, you know what, maybe I need to go and volunteer at one of the humanities offices to work with the little dogs whether it just could be bathing the dogs or brushing the dogs or just giving the dogs some love, and in turn, I’m helping that animal feel the love. But on the other hand, the animal was allowing me to be able to do something and feel something.
I know that there have been times when I’ve had conversations with people whether it’s on the social justice platform or whether we’re just talking about motivating people to take control of their own lives and seeing that they make the choices about what happens in their own lives. And so, when you’re able to do that, to just get the person to the point of saying “I’m in control of me,” people say “Well the best is yet to come.” Uh-uh, no. What you didn’t do yesterday, we don’t care about. The future is not guaranteed for us but today, this moment, if I decide that I want to eat healthy, I can start doing it at this very moment and not beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t do it yesterday.
So it’s people taking control of their own lives and being able to take action whether it’s in a collective body like what lies between us or whether it’s an individual space. And what people don’t realize is that there is somebody there to help you. What happens is people don’t feel as though anybody gives a crap. Whereas you got to have the courage and the determination and as some people use, the ‘chutzpah’ to be able to go and see someone that may be able to help you. Folks think “Oh, he’s too busy. He’s not going to have time for me.” People love to be asked for help.
Richard Janes: Absolutely, they do.
Ayanna Najuma: No matter how far you are in the food chain in a corporation or what the situation may be. And so people are going to help folks that want to better their lives.
Richard Janes Commentary: “People are going to want to help folks that want to better their lives” is a mantra that we all need to be saying each and every morning. It’s true. Not everyone will want to help, just as those 13 high school students experienced. Some out of hatred. Some because they simply didn’t know what to do. But your situation will not change unless you want to better your life. And unless you start taking the proactive steps so people know how to help. You need to lead the way in your own life. For Ayanna, it was equality that they sought and they took the first steps facing what they knew to be danger head on. If a 13-year-old girl can make a stand for what she believes in, then what about you? What do you believe in? What is it that you, if you were to get out of your own way, would you risk everything for? Because the upside, if it turns out, will make such a difference.
Richard Janes: Thank you so much for joining me today. It has been an absolute pleasure hearing your story.
Ayanna Najuma: The pleasure is all mine.
Richard Janes: Everyone does have a story to tell and it’s been so great hearing your story. Thank you.
Author: Richard Janes
Richard Janes is an Emmy winning personal brand expert with a passion for storytelling. His unique approach to personal branding has launched, revived, and catapulted the careers of many actors, athletes, musicians, television hosts, executives, and entrepreneurs.
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