Why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is important for Oklahoma

Photo by J.P. Wilson

Today Americans remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We will remember his fight, his dream, his tragedy. Today we will also be dazzled, awed and entertained by the athletic exploits of fantastic NBA players like Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

While we sit cheering in the Chesapeake Energy Arena, or in our own homes with eyes glued to the TV screen, the importance of today must not be forgotten.

The life and works of Dr. King have been romanticized and ingrained into our cultural psyche so much that you would be hard pressed to meet someone who has not heard the words, “I have a dream…” By now, these words are as American as “Oh, say can you see,” or Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father.

So, on this national holiday commemorating solidarity, tragedy, and civil rights, what does basketball have to do with any of it? More specifically, why–in Oklahoma–is it important that basketball be played today?

Let me first commit the writing sin of putting myself in the article. If you’ve heard our ‘Peake & Roll Podcast, you know my story. I have lived all over the map due to being an Air Force brat, and have been fortunate to meet and see many different people and places. I always knew however, no matter where I was in the world, that Oklahoma was my home.

With that knowledge came some hard truths, some factual and others downright ignorant.

Yes, Oklahoma is sometimes referred to as a “fly-over” state. It lies in the middle of the country with no exotic beaches, no media-heavy metropolises, no ultra-desirable climate bringing outsiders in droves. Oklahoma is also, according to the 2010 U.S Census, 72 percent white. Having been recognized as a state post-Civil War, I once thought–as many people I know still do–that Oklahoma is somehow only proxy or tangential to the major Civil Rights events.

It is true that the history of Civil Rights in Oklahoma is not as well-known as monumental events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the murder of Emmett Till. Even to a native like me, some of these historical events that involved the harsh and brutal treatment of black men, women, and children in Oklahoma are not well-known. But that does not mean they did not happen, or that it is acceptable to remain ignorant of them. King died for his dream. The least we can do is live with his reality.

I encourage many of you to check out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book Writings on the Wall.

In the book, Abdul-Jabbar quotes The History Boys, his favorite movie. Though the author and former NBA player was not referring to MLK day, his chosen quote seems particularly apt for this day as well:

..there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

Some may view Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a date on the calendar. An extra day off work. A day to sit and enjoy a game. A reminder of the poor treatment of black-Americans in other states years ago. A day where we try to forget the terrible past in a feeble attempt to move forward.

Contrary to my ignorance earlier in life, Oklahoma has a rich history of Civil Rights events. Both tragedies and important wins. Let’s not forget them.

1921: the Tulsa Race Massacr. A deplorable mark on our state’s history that incurred the murder of as many as 300 Tulsans and left over 10,000 homeless, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, OK.

1958: a sit-in organized by a local school teacher named Clara Luper at the Katz Drug Store at 200 W Main in Oklahoma City saw 13 of her school children courageously endure verbal threats, slurs and physical attacks in a non-violent act of protest. After two days of alternating turns at the counter, an employee finally served a hamburger to one of the kids, which opened the door for desegregation.

1961: the Dowell v. School Board of Oklahoma City Public Schools lawsuit in which Alphonso Dowell took legal action to allow his son, Robert, to attend Northeast High School.

These are but three examples. However, most of these I did not learn of through schools or any official histories. What else is there? How can we know? There are certainly countless testimonies of experiences from black Oklahomans that have been forgotten or kept silent. It is important to acknowledge those voices with Oklahoman kindness and compassion, lest we forget.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day does not solely apply to the South. It is not exclusive to large, urban areas like Chicago, New York City or Los Angeles. It is an American holiday that applies to Americans, no matter the color of your skin or your cultural background. It applies to Oklahoma and Oklahomans, too.

What the NBA does by playing games on this day is bring awareness. This is a league that is populated by 74 percent black players, and 82 percent players of color according to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Many of whom have experienced prejudice in both direct and more subtle ways. While basketball is entertainment for fans, it is important to remember that is a league played by human beings with real experiences.

I challenge you to think.

Read the state’s local history and engage with your neighbors and fellow Thunder fans. Help bring about a better understanding of the state’s past with its black citizens and residents of color so that future generations can be spared the ignorance many of us grew up with today and never repeat these tragedies.

Look no further than NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s comments in a recent piece fromESPN. “Sports continue to be a unique opportunity to unite people, and it is a place where there is a rare sense of equality,” Silver said speaking to reporters at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, “The 50th anniversary of King’s death is an impetus to continue pushing forward.”

Lastly, this piece is not here to shame anyone.

No one should look to the past in shame, for if you categorize your community’s history as such it could prove difficult to push forward, improve and become a better person/community as a result. This includes whites, blacks… simply Oklahomans.

By commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in addition to enjoying the Thunder take on the Sacramento Kings, let us not forget that there is still work to be done by all of us.

Basketball has brought us together. Now let’s take the home court advantage and become a better people as a result.



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