Education , Law & Principles
Ray Carter | April 25, 2023
Democrats continue to oppose MLK bill
Legislation that would require Oklahoma public schools to teach about the civil-rights leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., has passed the state Senate and is headed to the governor’s desk.
But Democrats continued to oppose the bill, suggesting it is impossible to teach about King and the civil-rights era without engaging in some forms of the racism that King opposed during his lifetime.
House Bill 1397, by state Rep. Mark Lepak and state Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, requires that the state provide Oklahoma public schools with curriculum that can be taught as a stand-alone unit of instruction or incorporated into existing courses. The lessons would focus on “the events of the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968, the natural law and natural rights principles that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., drew from that informed his leadership of the civil rights movement, and the tactics and strategies of nonviolent resistance that he championed in response to the Jim Crow laws of that era.”
Bergstrom recalled how his own parents espoused bigotry when he was a child, and credited King’s work with helping him chart a different course in his own life.
“I grew up in that era. I recall it very well, as I mentioned earlier, the news of the assassination of Dr. King and its aftermath. It was terrible,” said Bergstrom, R-Adair. “I was dramatically impacted by his words and his legacy.”
But Democrats insisted that instruction on King would violate an existing law passed in 2021, House Bill 1775, which made it illegal to teach Oklahoma students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and other concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory.
State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said she spoke on behalf of the “many teachers who have reached out to me directly” opposing the bill.
“This is in direct contradiction of what was passed through HB 1775,” Hicks said.
“This bill violates the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the state of Oklahoma, doesn’t it,” said state Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.
But Bergstrom, a former public-school teacher, noted that for 19 years he taught students about King’s work, including King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and “letter from a Birmingham jail.” Such instruction does not require teachers to instruct students that “one race or sex is inherently superior” or that the current generation of students bears guilt for the actions of prior generations based on their skin color, he noted.
The two black members of the Oklahoma Senate, both Democrats, also opposed the bill, saying it should have a broader focus.
But both lawmakers also said the proposed lessons were worthwhile.
“I think most everything in this bill is important to be taught,” said state Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa.
“I’m voting no on this bill not because it’s a bad piece of legislation,” said state Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. “Matter of fact, it does some good in its intent.”
Supporters of the bill said a focus on King in particular, and the specific time in which he was a civil-rights leader, warrant greater focus.
“What this bill does, it takes the work of a great man in American history and teaches what he was trying to teach our country in a very bad time in our country’s history,” said state Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt. “When we send our kids to school, we want to educate them. We want to make them better people. We want to prepare them for life. And I can’t think of a better great American than Martin Luther King to have our kids study him.”
“What we’re doing with this bill is honoring a great American who has charted a course of defying the status quo as it was to forge it into a more perfect union,” said state Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee.
One opponent dismissed those arguments.
Hicks complained that similar laws mandating instruction on Martin Luther King, Jr., are being passed in states across the country, saying such instruction is “whitewashing” history and that the proposed lessons on King are meant to “suppress the voices of the marginalized.”
But Bergstrom said the opposite is true.
“My view on this is that it’s going to build upon and not take away the past, that we want people to know as much as possible about not only the terrible things that happened in the past, but that we had heroes that stood up and led us in a peaceful way to overcome those atrocities and that bigotry,” Bergstrom said.
HB 1397 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 35-9 vote. The bill now proceeds to Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.