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Oklahoma historian Dr. Bob Blackburn addresses Human Rights Commission

Dr. Bob Blackburn address the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission
Peggy Dodd
Dr. Bob Blackburn address the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission

Dr. Bob Blackburn has a simple message when talking about Oklahoma’s history: Oklahoma has always been a state with injustice.

The former Executive Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society presented a timeline of injustice in Oklahoma to the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission Tuesday. The commission is using its first year to learn from historians and residents about the history of civil rights in Oklahoma City.

The timeline started in the 1880s, where Blackburn detailed the history between Indigenous peoples and the United States. He continued through statehood in the 1900s, calling Oklahoma a land of immigrants. Architect James Loftist drew pictures on the physical timeline.

“History is full of injustice,” Blackburn said. “And perhaps even more controversial, (history is) still today, and more than likely always will be.”

Though the state was “defined by diversity” in 1907, the year of statehood, Blackburn pointed to the fact that all writers of the Oklahoma constitution were white men. He continued by discussing the Klu Klux Klan’s influence in the state, estimating that by 1921, two-thirds of the state legislature held Klan membership.

Blackburn went on to explain Oklahoma’s relationship with civil rights, discussing figures like Clara Luper, who organized the Katz Drug Store sit-ins in 1958 and Roscoe Dunjee, publisher of the Black Dispatch.

Blackburn moved from Central Oklahoma to Tulsa, focusing on the damage and destruction of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Blackburn said the massacre created a “conspiracy of silence,” quoting author and historian John Hope Franklin.

Ultimately, Blackburn thinks Oklahoma has progressed, though there are steps back. To continue this, Blackburn said attitudes must change through education and dialogue.

“We’ve got these scars, we’ve got the culture that is not granting justice to everyone equally,” Blackburn said. “How can we do that together? We have to have this dialogue.”

Following Blackburn’s presentation, Human Rights Commission Chair Valerie Couch invited Ward 2 Councilmember James Cooper to discuss the history of the LGBTQ+ community in Oklahoma.

Cooper said all history ultimately was LGBTQ+ history, and the two cannot be separated. Cooper pointed to Oklahoma City resident Paul Thompson, who in 1969 was arrested in a bar friendly to LGBTQ+ people, the same year as the Stonewall Riots in New York City.

On recent Supreme Court decisions that banned affirmative action and supported a business’ right to turn people away for their sexual identity, Cooper said those decisions exist either for purposeful motives or due to lack of historical knowledge.

“I’m going to give some people the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they don’t know this history,” Cooper said. “What terrifies me is that some people know what they are doing.”

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Peggy Dodd was an intern at KOSU during the summer of 2023.
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