(Editor’s note: This story quotes dialogue containing the N-word in reference to MLK Day.)
Throughout the 1980s, America’s political leaders debated whether to create today’s holiday: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Ronald Reagan was far from the only Republican to argue a new federal holiday might be too costly. Various states delayed their recognition of MLK Day for years, with one Arizona governor affirming the day in his state only to have his successor backtrack. South Carolina and New Hampshire — who shape early presidential campaign results, remember — waited until 2000 to recognize MLK Day officially.
The saga surrounding MLK Day’s creation exemplifies the “nothing is wrong” mindset that continues to keep a sizable chunk of the American public from admitting not only that racism exists, but that it causes problems and needs active solutions. Left in their own bubbles, many white Americans who were born after the Civil Rights movement have only a vague understanding of King’s actions and messages. They also lack an understanding of why today’s national holiday is important and remains a necessary piece of a critical dialogue about race.
If you are still skeptical, consider the conversation recorded among municipal employees of Warner, Oklahoma, this month. One employee reportedly told MuskogeeNow.com that he has taken to recording his work conversations for fear of being fired, and he happened to catch his colleagues discussing MLK Day in a grotesque and racist manner.
The exchange begins at 1:22 into the audio, and there appear to be three separate voices, although both Muskogee Now and the Tulsa World reported that only two men were involved in the conversation:
Man One: “We get Martin Luther King Day off?”
Man Two: “No N****r Day for us.”
Man Three: “We’re off for N****r Day?”
Man One: “Yeah, it says holidays.”
Man Three: “I’m not celebrating N****r Day.”
Man One: “Well we can just call it JER Day. James Earl Ray. That’s what we always celebrate. Not that we don’t like black people.
Man Three: “I’m not racist. I’m just saying that’s what it’s called here.”
James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
The World reported that two men, Joe Swimmer and Matt McLean, resigned as a result of the recording and public outcry.
“I thought it was real disrespectful,” the man who made the recording, Michael Wittmer, told the World.
On MLK Day 2018, pledge to take action
By the casual giggling audible in the recording, the men who made their racist jokes found their comments funny, appropriate and not an indication of prejudice.
While Oklahoma is a wonderful place full of friendly people, residents who are honest with themselves know that they have experienced scenarios like this — or worse — over their lifetimes.
Wittmer should be praised for exposing what he heard, but other Oklahomans should challenge themselves to speak up and take their own actions when they encounter racism in 2018.
That’s right, the year is 2018.
Let us, as Oklahomans, resolve on MLK Day 2018 to foster a more respectful, intellectual and mature environment in our state when it comes to race.
Doing so will be important. The town of Warner, Oklahoma, has provided all of the evidence we should need.