Ray Carter | April 4, 2023
Oklahoma Democrats oppose teaching children about civil-rights era
A measure that would require Oklahoma schools to devote time to instruction on the civil-rights struggle from 1954 to 1968, including the strategies employed by Martin Luther King, Jr., has passed out of a Senate committee over the objections of Democrats.
One Democratic lawmaker claimed it is not possible to teach about King’s work without violating an existing state law that prohibits schools from encouraging children to embrace theories of racial superiority.
House Bill 1397, by 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.”
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 drew quick opposition from Democratic lawmakers.
State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said the legislation would violate House Bill 1775, a 2021 law that 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.
The 2021 law also prohibits teachers from telling students that an “individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
“We need more people who say like Dr. King did that a man or a woman or child should only be judged by the character they exhibit rather than the color of their skin.” —State Sen. Micheal Bergstrom
Hicks read aloud a portion of HB 1397, which 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.”
Hicks argued that curriculum stressing those lessons is illegal.
“How do we reconcile what I feel like are two statutes that will be in direct conflict with one another if the goal is to create a repository for accurate information about the civil-rights movement?” Hicks said.
But Republican members of the committee said there is no conflict and argued it is important for Oklahoma students to learn about Jim Crow segregation laws and how they were repealed as a result of nonviolent protest.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to reference House Bill 1775 as saying you can’t teach these things, because that’s not in the bill,” said state Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa. “These things are to be taught.”
Rader recalled how World War II occurred 30 years before he was in high school, and how that seemed “such a distant history” to him as a teenager. He then noted the civil-rights era and King’s assassination are now even further in the past.
“We’re talking about 50 and 60 years ago of history, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, to the people that are in school now, that’s a long time ago,’” Rader said.
He praised efforts to highlight that portion of American history, saying it was “a time that we became a better country.”
A visibly emotional Bergstrom recalled growing up during the civil-rights era, and noted his parents were strong supporters of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat and staunch segregationist.
“I grew up in a home with two parents that I loved, and who loved me, but who were both bigots,” said Bergstrom, R-Adair. “The terms that they used regularly in my home are terms that those who know me well know that I have no tolerance for.”
Bergstrom said two things kept him from following that same path and caused him to instead “rise above and stand against the bigotry that existed in my home as a child and as a teenager”—his Christian faith and observing the words and actions of King and his supporters as they fought to overturn Jim Crow laws.
“I was dramatically impacted by his words and by his legacy,” Bergstrom said. “I consider him a hero.”
As a teacher, Bergstrom said he instructed students about King’s “I have a dream” speech and “letter from a Birmingham jail.”
“We need more people, more adults, more children who think like Dr. King did,” Bergstrom said. “More people who say like he did that there is only that one (human) race, that a man or a woman or child should only be judged by the character they exhibit rather than the color of their skin.”
HB 1397 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 10-2 vote that split along party lines. Hicks and state Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, were the lone opponents.
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.