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Civil rights leader addresses Oklahoma City's Human Rights Commission

 George Henderson sits in a chair
Kateleigh Mills
Local civil rights leader and OU Professor George Henderson addresses the May 24 Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission meeting.

Local civil rights leader and OU Professor George Henderson spoke about his experiences and the future of education at the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission meeting Wednesday morning.

The Human Rights Commission was re-established in 2022, after it was disbanded by the city in 1996. The move came after commissioners attempted to expand protection of civil rights to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Commission Chair Valerie Couch said the commission’s focus within the first year of operation was to learn about the history of inequality and advocacy in Oklahoma City. Henderson is one of the first experts to help the group in that work.

Henderson moved to Norman and joined OU as the school’s third Black faculty member in 1967. He and his wife Barbara were the first Black couple in Norman to purchase a home. As an educator, Henderson founded OU’s Human Relations program.

At the commission meeting, Henderson reflected on his up-bringing and recalled his involvement in the civil rights movement. He provided advice for both members of the public and the commissioners on how to examine the history of civil rights in Oklahoma City.

Mayor David Holt attended the meeting, and he said a lot of Oklahoma City residents “regretted,” that the original commission was disbanded. The new commission’s establishment vote narrowly passed in 2022 through a 5-4 vote by the city council.

Henderson suggested the commission have uncomfortable conversations about equality in order to make progress. He said he was optimistic about the future of civil rights, encouraging the commission to remember the younger generation when forming goals.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs have become a focus of state lawmakers during this year’s legislative session. Last week, Rep. Justin Humphrey (R-Lane) and Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) filed a resolution calling on the state to defund DEI at public universities.

Henderson said advocates and students should resist attempts to defund DEI and encouraged peaceful protests if needed.

“We will resist, we will repel, we will not submit quietly,” Henderson said. “Under no circumstances must we return hatred with hatred. That's a tall order.”

The next meeting of the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission will be in July.

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