Speaker shines light on unknown history of Oklahoma civil rights

Laura Arata

Laura Arata spoke about the differences between James Coody Johnson and Alfalfa Bill Murray and their roles in Oklahoma's early statehood as part of the Murray Hall Civil Rights Speaker Series on Thursday.

A lot of the racial history in the state of Oklahoma is unknown.

Historian Laura Arata spoke out about this issue Thursday during her speech in the Murray Hall Parlor. She specializes in the history of race and gender in the American West.

“We can’t learn our history unless we are willing to dive deeper into things that are uncomfortable,” Arata said. “If we’re not willing to talk about them, then we can’t ever learn from our mistakes.”

Arata described the differences between James Coody Johnson and Alfalfa Bill Murray, and explained both were successful lawyers from Oklahoma who fought for issues during statehood, but Johnson is not widely recognized.

Johnson, who was African American-Creek, spent a lot of time traveling between Washington D.C. and Oklahoma to argue in front of the Supreme Court for Seminole and Creek rights. Murray was Oklahoma’s ninth governor.

The speech was part of the Murray Hall Civil Rights Speaker Series, which organizes a speech each semester. Faculty at Oklahoma State University created the series to open discussion about changing the name of Murray Hall. Arata said Murray’s name is controversial.

“He was the first speaker of Oklahoma’s house of representatives,” Arata said. “He is influential in passing Jim Crow laws in the new state. He spouts openly racist and sometimes anti-semitic views.”

Arata said she plans to learn more about Coody Johnson and his Negro Fairs because there is such little information out there.

Close to 40 people attended the speech. The audience gave a loud ovation after the speech.

Among the audience members was Brandy Wells, an assistant professor at OSU. She specializes in African American History.

“Race truly defined the potential of Oklahoma citizens,” Wells said. “Race was big here, so you can’t talk about Oklahoma and not talk about race. I think that’s a big lesson.”

Freshman economics major Braiden Murray was most impacted by the contrast between Murray and Johnson.

“Just the fact that Murray is the one we talk about, and Johnson is shoved under the rug,” Murray said. “I think it's interesting that we are in Murray Hall talking about how unjust he was.”

Arata reiterated the issue in an interview after the speech.

“How can we be a state that celebrates that legacy of cowboys every day but doesn’t understand that there’s a deep racially complex history of cowboys?”