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An Oklahoma City woman remembers being a child activist

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. One of the first sit-ins of the civil rights era happened at a drugstore in Oklahoma City. It was 65 years ago this week, and it was staged by children. Ayanna Najuma was just 7 when she took part. And at StoryCorps, she recalled how an NAACP Youth Council trip started it all.

AYANNA NAJUMA: We took a trip to New York on a Greyhound bus, and we see white people and Black people checking in the hotel and people at restaurants that are eating together, and we are freaking blown away. And so that's when the thought of having a sit-in came to mind. The adults agreed that if children did it, then folks are not going to be as violent. And so a boot camp was created. It's almost like when you're going into the military. They would never send guys into a war without preparing them for all the possibilities.

And there were some kids that wanted to participate in the sit-ins, but their parents said, no, it was too risky. But my mom volunteered to drive us on August 19, 1958. I'm 7, and my sister is 5. And 13 of us walked into Katz Drug Store and sat down at the counter and asked, may I have a hamburger and a Coke, please?

I had on a little white dress. The boys had on trousers, dress shirts. And we brought some coloring books. And so there we were, these little African American children taking up all the seats. The waitresses were not happy about it, and the customers were not happy. And sometimes you heard the N-word. But we stayed until they closed up the store.

The second day, it was the same thing. That third day we walked in, still, may I have a hamburger and a Coke, please? And they said yes. The thing about Katz was they were in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, some other states. And after that third day, they opened all their restaurants up to African American people.

But we continued to sit in until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. So we went to many restaurants between the time I was 7 to 14 because in spite of the fact that we were asking for hamburger and a Coke, really, we were asking for respect and dignity. And I try to explain to children how important their voices are because the rights that you have are the same rights that I have, even if you're 7 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED")

MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) We shall not, we shall not be moved.

FADEL: Ayanna Najuma in Oklahoma City. The Katz Drug Store sit-in inspired four college students known as the Greensboro Four to occupy a Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina in 1960. This interview is archived at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED")

STAPLES: (Singing) We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Like a tree that's planted by the water... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Von Diaz