Oklahoma City—Before Alexander Mickelthwate moved to Oklahoma City five years ago, one of the first things he did was begin studying Oklahoma’s history. As the Music Director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Mickelthwate wanted to gain some insight into his new community.
During his research, one name that kept recurring was civil rights leader Clara Luper.
“As a kid growing up in Germany, I idolized America,” Mickelthwate said. “The culture intrigued me, and I was inspired by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—what an inspiration they were, and what a legacy they left behind. Not just a legacy of equality, but a legacy of peace and love. And with Clara Luper, Oklahoma City had its own civil rights icon.”
Upon his arrival in Oklahoma City, Mickelthwate set up a lunch meeting with Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth. Also joining them for lunch was Joyce Jackson, one of the children who was with Luper at her famous sit-in back in 1958.
“I had goosebumps several times,” Mickelthwate said, “because suddenly I was there, this little German boy, sitting next to those civil rights leaders Marilyn and Joyce. It was fantastic.”
When he learned May 2023, would have been Luper’s 100th birthday, he had an idea.
“I knew the OKCPHIL should celebrate Clara’s life through a new work of music,” he said. “So, I hired jazz trumpeter and composer Hannibal Lokumbe to write new material. Hannibal is not only a musician and composer, he is a philosopher, a thinker and just a beautiful human being. When I asked him to write a new orchestral work to commemorate Clara, he not only said yes, but he also said he would be honored.”
“Trials, Tears, Transcendence: The Journey of Clara Luper” premieres as part of OKCPHIL’s “Oklahoma Stories—Clara Luper Centennial” on Saturday, May 13, 8 p.m. at Civic Center Music Hall. It’s the final concert of the season in the Inasmuch Foundation Classics Series.
A special tribute video has been produced through the courtesy of Prairie Surf Media. It features notable Oklahomans in a seated position, and as they rise, reference Luper by saying: “Because you sat, I stand for equality.” Other tag lines include “diversity” and “justice.” Among those participating are Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, former Governors and First Ladies Frank and Cathy Keating and Brad and Kim Henry, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, Reba McEntire, Kristin Chenoweth, and singer Jabee Williams, among others.
“Since being brought on board to produce the tribute video for Ms. Luper, we have been floored with the number of leaders across all sectors that have been willing to participate,” said Prairie Surf Media CEO Matt Payne. “More than ever, Prairie Surf is committed to amplifying Ms. Luper’s message, and we have loved doing so thus far in partnership with the OKC Philharmonic.”
One of the goals Mickelthwate set forth in his role with the OKCPHIL is to bring the community together.
“Diversity enriches all our lives,” he said. “We are all connected, and in music, the language of the soul, at every concert we are witnessing the beautifully unifying aspect to it. Diversity is simply about an unbelievably creative, never-ending palette of beauty. To be able to provide a canvas to this is so satisfying and humbling.
“I think it’s important to recognize Clara, and those children who paved the way for civil rights here in Oklahoma City,” Mickelthwate added. “Although they were spit at and mocked, they had the inner strength and poise to stand their ground in the most peaceful manner. There is nothing more beautiful and powerful than this.”