TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Several black leaders in Topeka said Tuesday that a Kansas State Board of Education member’s use of a racial slur during a meeting last month was unnecessary and inappropriate.
Carolyn Campbell, the only black member of the board, and other black community leaders criticized board member Steve Roberts for using the slur at April’s board meeting. Campbell said she had received several calls from constituents asking for Roberts to resign or be censured for the remark.
“People who have looked at it have been very upset about it,” Campbell said, adding that some wondered if he “was doing it for media attention.”
“No one has been able to understand why we had to endure” Roberts’ monologue on that word, she said. “It was offensive to me.”
Roberts, who was elected to his first term in November, said he used the slur “clinically” during a discussion of state history standards. At the time, he noted that Martin Luther King Jr. twice mentioned the N-word in his April 16, 1963 letter from a jail in Birmingham, Ala. King wrote the famous letter after his arrest during a civil rights protest.
Ben Scott, past president of the Topeka NAACP, said he didn’t understand the connection between Roberts’ comments, Kings letter and the study of history.
“It appears to me in those remarks that it is an attempt to denigrate the reputation of our great leader,” said Scott, who had addressed the board in April raising concerns about proper treatment of black history in Kansas schools.
“I was taken aback,” Scott said. “I didn’t want to take those comments as a personal attack. I refuse to do that.”
Roberts sat silently during Tuesday’s meeting as Campbell and others spoke. After the meeting, he told reporters he wasn’t trying to make headlines with his comment. He said he was trying to make a point that history must be taken in context, which includes all the language and activities in the nation’s past. Omitting offensive words in the name of being politically correct “misses the point of learning,” he said.
“It was about the word itself,” he said, adding he considers the word “repugnant.”
Roberts said he stood by his comments and that he was attempting to be unconventional in his actions by deliberately being politically incorrect to encourage debate.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” he said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Campbell, in her second term on the board, read excerpts from the King letter, saying it was important to hear the civil rights leader’s own words and use of the slur in the context of explaining to his daughter and others what the struggle was about.