Monday, April 24, 2023

Small: Response to MLK legislation is telling

Response to MLK legislation is telling
By Jonathan Small

Oklahoma law currently prohibits teaching children that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”

This year, lawmakers have advanced legislation to have public schools provide lessons on 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.”

It’s not a coincidence that many who opposed the aforementioned anti-racism law now oppose the MLK bill with some going so far as to claim you can’t teach about King without violating the prohibition on teaching racial superiority.

One suspects King would be surprised to hear that.

The 2021 law, House Bill 1775, is not controversial, although opponents pretend otherwise. It targeted tenets of Critical Race Theory that have been broadly rejected since the repeal of Jim Crow laws. Most Oklahomans do not believe children should be taught that any race is superior to another, or that one is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive” based on skin color.

As supporters of HB 1775 noted, most Oklahomans believe individuals should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin or similar characteristics. That’s an idea famously espoused by King in 1963, and that speech is one reason King has been treated with great reverence ever since. It’s also why some groups now find King problematic.

That reality has become apparent in the comments of some opponents of House Bill 1397, which would require Oklahoma public schools to focus more on King’s work.

In a recent press release, state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, said the proposed curriculum tries to “boil down the civil rights movement to a set of principles one author attributes to one palatable Black man.”

But the bill does not prevent teaching about other civil rights leaders. And, somehow, I don’t think King or those who worked with him felt he was viewed as “palatable” during his lifetime given the response he often received, which ended with his assassination.

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, argued the two statutes “will be in direct conflict with one another if the goal is to create a repository for accurate information about the civil-rights movement.”

In reality it is quite possible to teach children that society once embraced theories of racial superiority, and came to reject them, without teaching children to embrace a worldview of racial superiority today.

King was not perfect. But he took a bold stance on a great moral question of his time, at great personal risk, and promoted moral persuasion over violent responses to injustice.

That some would now downgrade King’s work, out of fear their complaints about HB 1775 will be exposed as political bunk, sadly shows moral blindness did not end with the downfall of Jim Crow.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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