Clara Mae Shepard Luper was born in 1923 in rural Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. Her father, Ezell Shepard, was a World War I veteran and laborer, and her mother, Isabell Shepard, worked as a laundress. As a child, she was raised in Hoffman, Oklahoma. She went to high school in the all-black town of Grayson, Oklahoma. In 1944, she received a B.A. in mathematics with a minor in history from Langston University. In 1950, Luper was one of a group of black students who integrated the University of Oklahoma, where she received an M.A. in History Education in 1951.
In 1957, as Clara Luper worked as a history teacher at Dunjee High School (east of Oklahoma City), she also became the advisor for the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council. At this time, she was deeply influenced by the success of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Known as the “Mother of the Oklahoma Civil Rights Movement,” from 1958 to 1964, Luper mentored members of the NAACP Youth Council during its campaign to end the segregation of public accommodations in Oklahoma City through sit-ins, protests and boycotts. While instrumental in leading the fight to end segregation in Oklahoma, Luper also led campaigns in Oklahoma City to gain equal banking rights, employment opportunities, open housing and voting rights.