Ray Carter | March 22, 2023
Bill to highlight MLK’s strategies in schools advances
Legislation requiring that Oklahoma students be provided an opportunity to learn about the principles Martin Luther King, Jr., relied on during the civil-rights era has passed out of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“It focuses on things that our young people need to hear about,” said state Rep. Mark Lepak, R-Claremore. “The five pillars of the course are freedom, perseverance, hope, justice and conscience. It takes an analytical look at what Dr. King did, how he went about it.”
House Bill 1397, by Lepak, 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.”
The legislation states, “One of the universal lessons of the civil rights era is that hatred on the basis of immutable characteristics, including not just race or ethnicity, but also characteristics such as nationality, religious belief, disability, or sex, can overtake any nation or society, leading to profound injustice.”
HB 1397 also 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 bill drew vocal opposition from legislators who derided the lessons as “whitewashed” history and “indoctrination.”
“We are trying to take curriculum out of schools and we’re trying to replace it with a whitewashed version of very difficult fights that people in our country have had, that people in our state have had,” said state Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City.
“Vote no on this,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa. “Whitewashing history ain’t gonna get it.”
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, called the program an “alternate version of history” and suggested it is “indoctrination.”
Opponents also said the lessons might leave students believing all civil-rights problems have been addressed.
“The reality that we’re dealing with today is that there is still significant inequality,” said state Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. “There is still significant prejudice that occurs. It’s now covert as opposed to overt because of political correctness.”
“The same profound dilemmas of systemic racism, of injustice, of discrimination against the marginalized continue, mister speaker, right to this very day,” said state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “They (students) would understand that most fundamental lesson of American history is that the past is not dead; it’s not even past, that we do not, mister speaker, owe a debt to a past generation that solved the problems of systemic racism, of profound injustice. They addressed the problems of a time, mister speaker, and they left to us problems of our time.”
However, Lepak noted the course would highlight ways for students to effectively advocate for change and discourage people from resorting to violence and riots. He said the program has been endorsed by two of King’s contemporaries who were active in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.
“His message transcended our differences,” Lepak said. “I think that’s the point of the course. We have a lot more in common than not. And the more we emphasize the things we do not have in common as the primary identification of who we are, the more divisive we’ll be in this country.”
HB 1397 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 55-42 vote. It now proceeds to the Oklahoma Senate.
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.