Ray Carter | April 6, 2023

Oklahoma lawmakers call for de-emphasizing MLK in school lessons

Ray Carter

Some black Democratic lawmakers say Martin Luther King, Jr. should get less emphasis in proposed instruction in Oklahoma schools with one legislator even dismissing King as “one palatable Black man.”

The lawmakers made those comments in a release announcing their opposition to legislation that would provide curriculum to Oklahoma schools focused on the work of King and his associates as they fought for repeal of Jim Crow segregation laws through nonviolent protest.

“Civil rights didn’t start and end between 1954 and 1968,” said state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City. “It also didn't only happen at the hands of Dr. ‎Martin Luther King, Jr.”

House Bill 1397, by state Rep. Mark Lepak and state Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, would require the state to 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.”

When he presented the bill on the House floor, Lepak said the proposed curriculum is not intended to be an all-encompassing review of racial history in the United States.

“The course was built around Dr. King’s life and legacy because that was a period of time that he was active,” said Lepak, R-Claremore. “And so his method and approach to these very important issues is the focus.”

HB 1397 declares that the “study of this material is a reaffirmation of the commitment of the people of this state to reject bigotry, to champion equal protection under the law as a foundational principle of our Republic, and to act in opposition to injustice wherever it may occur.”

The legislation has passed out of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and recently passed out of a state Senate committee, but has drawn consistent and vocal opposition from Democratic lawmakers.

In a press release, Turner said that to “boil down the civil rights movement to a set of principles one author attributes to one palatable Black man” does a disservice to King’s legacy “at best.”

She suggested other individuals should be highlighted, including Bayard Rustin, Leah Chase, A. Philip ‎Randolph, Dr. June Jackson Christmas, James Farmer Jr., Aileen Hernandez, John Lewis, Judy Richardson, ‎Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins.

However, most of those individuals were active in the civil rights movement during the period covered by the proposed curriculum and worked alongside King in many cases, indicating that those individuals may well be part of the proposed lessons.

Rustin worked with King in organizing the 1963 “March on Washington” where King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Randolph was also involved in the 1963 march. Farmer also served alongside King and was involved in the 1963 march and was an organizer of the first Freedom Ride in 1961, which challenged segregation on commercial bus transportation. Lewis also worked alongside King and was involved in the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery marches. Lewis was brutally beaten at the Selma march in 1965.

State Sen. George E. Young, D-Oklahoma City, also criticized the legislation and proposed curriculum, saying that it “does not mention 1619, slavery, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, reconstruction, Dred Scott, and so much more that tells the story of how we have arrived at our present state of inequality and injustice.”

1619 is the date that the first black slaves arrived in what is today the United States. The date became famous due to The 1619 Project by the New York Times, a curriculum that defines much of U.S. history as being driven by support for or the repercussions of slavery.

The 1619 Project has drawn fire from historians of all ideological stripes.

For example, 12 Civil War historians and political scientists who research the Civil War wrote a joint letter declaring “that The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady, and grew up in a larger context of forced labor and race. Moreover, the breadth of 400 years and 300 million people cannot be compressed into single-size interpretations; yet, The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fall-out.”

The academics warned, “The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights.”

Supporters of HB 1397 have said King’s civil-rights advocacy and methods of nonviolent protest are deserving of particular focus in Oklahoma schools.

During the Senate committee hearing on the bill, Bergstrom recalled growing up during the civil-rights era, and bluntly said his parents “loved me” but “were both bigots,” noting they were strong supporters of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat and staunch segregationist.

Bergstrom said his Christian faith and observing the words and actions of King and his supporters caused him to reject that worldview.

“I was dramatically impacted by his words and by his legacy,” said Bergstrom, R-Adair. “I consider him a hero.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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