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Oklahoma's Governor Was Kicked Off The Tulsa Massacre Commission For Signing A Bill Banning Critical Race Theory In Schools

The decision comes just weeks before Oklahoma commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre.

Last updated on May 15, 2021, at 12:54 p.m. ET

Posted on May 14, 2021, at 8:47 p.m. ET

Sue Ogrocki / AP

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt was kicked off a commission established to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre on Friday, just one week after he signed a bill banning the teaching of some issues surrounding race and racism in public schools.

After signing HB 1775 on May 7, Stitt defended his decision, arguing, "Not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex."

But critics argue the new law is meant to squash the teaching of critical aspects of the country's racial history, including the historical impact of racism on people of color.

Members of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission had urged Stitt to veto the bill. One member subsequently quit in protest after the governor signed the bill into law.

In a statement, the commission confirmed that it had agreed through consensus "to part ways with Governor Stitt." The emailed statement did not outline a reason for the decision.

The commission, formed in 2016, set out to spearhead projects to educate, commemorate, and address the impacts of the 1921 massacre that destroyed Tulsa's Greenwood district, a Black community known at the time as the US's "Black Wall Street."

Mobs of white residents attacked the community and destroyed blocks of the neighborhood. Although dozens of people were believed to have been killed in the violent attack, a state commission estimated the number of casualties may have been as high as 300.

A historical image of a devastated neighborhood, showing piles of rubble and debris
Circa Images / Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Part of the Greenwood district burned in the Tulsa massacre

The commission is expected to headline its efforts with a televised event to mark the 100th anniversary. On the day the commission confirmed Stitt was kicked from its committee, it also announced that John Legend would be headlining the May 31 event.

Proponents of the new law have argued it bans teaching a racist ideology. According to the bill, it prohibits teaching that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another" or that "an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because his or her race or sex."

The Republican-backed bill also bans diversity training. It is meant to ban the teaching of what is widely known as "critical race theory," which looks at the impact of racism throughout US history. Conservative critics have blasted the concept and looked to push similar bills in Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

Critics claim the teachings are "un-American" or that they teach children to "hate their country."

The concept started making its way into some classrooms after the New York Times published the 1619 Project series, which looks at US history through the context of slavery, not as a moment in the country's timeline but one that has continued to shape the American experience.

That was met with backlash from conservative circles, including former president Donald Trump, who tried to ban diversity training in federal agencies and rebut the 1619 Project with his administration's own 1776 Report, which painted a much rosier version of US history.

On May 7, Stitt signed Oklahoma's bill, stating, "We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex. I refuse to tolerate otherwise."

Twitter: @GovStitt

Oklahoma Democrats criticized Stitt's actions, calling the bill "shameful."

"We owe it to future generations as well as society today to teach the truth and educate about our past no matter how uncomfortable the topics may be," said Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

Before Stitt was kicked from the commission, its project manager, Phil Armstrong, said the bill was "opposite to the mission of the Centennial Commission," the Associated Press reported.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Stitt's spokesperson criticized the decision and said the commission was trying to "sow division."

"It is disappointing to see an organization of such importance spend so much effort to sow division based on falsehoods and political rhetoric two weeks before the centennial and a month before the commission is scheduled to sunset," the statement said.

I couldn’t be more proud of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission’s work, but today I took a step back from my role as a commissioner. To my fellow commissioners, I thank you for what you do everyday for our community! We all owe you a great debt!

Twitter: @Monichols

State Rep. Monroe Nichols, who stepped down from the commission Tuesday, said Stitt's signing of the bill "cast an ugly shadow on the phenomenal work done during the last five years" by the commission.

"Governor Stitt has chosen to align himself with folks who want to re-write or prohibit the full intellectual exploration of our history, which is in direct conflict with the spirit of the commission I joined several years ago," he wrote.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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