OKLAHOMA CITY — Black leaders in Oklahoma and local political figures and activists said Friday they find it hard to believe U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s claim that he didn’t understand that challenging the certification of the Electoral College vote would also be seen as a "direct attack" on minority votes.
Friday afternoon, after hearing of the mea culpa, political figures and activists in Cherokee County also weighed in.
On Thursday, Lankford penned an apology letter “to my friends in North Tulsa,” acknowledging that his decision to challenge the results caused a “firestorm of suspicion.”
Lankford, R-Oklahoma, wrote that when he announced support for an electoral commission to spend 10 days auditing the results of the 2020 presidential election, it was never his intention to disenfranchise any voter or state.
He wrote that he believes Congress cannot legally ignore any state’s electors or change a state’s vote, but can work to get answers to outstanding questions. He said he wants to strengthen the confidence all Americans have in the electoral system so everyone is encouraged to vote and knows their vote matters.
“But my actions of asking for more election information caused a firestorm of suspicion among many of my friends, particularly in the Black communities around the state,” he wrote. “I was completely blindsided, but I also found a blind spot. What I did not realize was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit.
“After decades of fighting for voting rights, many Black friends in Oklahoma saw this as a direct attack on their vote, for their vote to matter, and even a belief that their votes made an election in our country illegitimate.”
Lankford also wrote that his intent to give a voice to Oklahomans who were questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election was never intended to diminish the voice of Black Americans.
“In this instance, I should have recognized how what I said and what I did could be interpreted by many of you. I deeply regret my blindness to that perception, and for that I am sorry.”
John Yeutter, retired Northeastern State University business professor and certified public accountant who leads the daily Norris Park “Kneel at Noon” protest to focus on Black Lives Matter, said Lankford appears to be acting out of expedience rather than principle.
"This is unbecoming of a person in his position," Yeutter said. "His colleagues in the house, including Reps. Massie and Roy, stated clearly that the duty on Jan. 6 was to determine whether these were the electors the states sent us, not whether these are the electors the states should have sent us. Sen. Lankford admits that in his letter, 'I believe Congress cannot legally ignore any state’s electors or change any state’s vote,' yet his call for an audit appears to attempt to do that, under the guise of giving 'a voice to Oklahomans who had questions.'”
Lankford in December signed a letter along with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others, saying he would vote against Electoral College certification unless a commission conducted an audit of the vote. Lankford backed away from that challenge after a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Lankford, who also serves on the state’s 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission, opened his apology letter by writing that the nation is less than 140 days from the 100th anniversary of the worst race massacre in our nation’s history — a two-day period in which many Black Tulsans were killed, injured or left homeless amid rioting that destroyed the historic Greenwood district.
“Today I am asking my friends in North Tulsa for grace and an opportunity for us to show the state what reconciliation looks like in moments of disagreement,” he wrote. “None of us get any compensation or reward for what we do for the commission, but being a part of the effort to shine a light on North Tulsa is an honor and a responsibility for me."
Jason Nichols, District 2 Democratic party chair and former Tahlequah mayor, said that while the apology wasn't directed at him, he was glad he made it, and that it seemed sincere.
"If he has truly recognized an error, I hope he follows up by doing what is necessary to not ever make it again. I hope he's gained enough perspective to understand why Black voters would be offended by what he's said and done regarding the election results," said Nichols.
State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, who serves on the commission, said he’s calling for Lankford’s removal from the commission and for him to resign from the U.S. Senate.
“I think it takes a big person to issue an apology, but I think that the apology that he issued was basically almost like, I’m really sorry that you were offended by something as opposed to my actions that I took were wrong,” said Rep. Nichols, who also serves on the Legislature’s Black caucus.
Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democratic Party vice chair, agrees.
"I think that among the discussions of healing and moving forward, Sen. Lankford should seriously consider giving the Commission the benefit of disentangling himself and his politics from their mission," said Barnes.
State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, a member of Oklahoma Legislature’s Black caucus, said Lankford’s letter is “disingenuous.”
He said it’s ridiculous for Lankford to say he didn’t know his position was a move to disenfranchise voters when it was all over national news. He also questioned why Lankford’s apology was only addressed to North Tulsa residents. Young said he lives in Oklahoma City, and he was offended by Lankford’s stance, yet the senator isn’t apologizing to him.
“How could you even believe he really was sorry for it?” Young asked. “If he wants to apologize, he needs to apologize to the state of Oklahoma. He needs to apologize to all those that may have been offended by his remarks and his actions over the last month.”
He believes Lankford is only apologizing because he wants to remain on the centennial commission. Young said Lankford is on the wrong side of history, just as the race riot was, and doesn't deserve to serve.
“Now he’s a part of another act that he’s on the wrong side of with this whole thing of disenfranchising voters,” Young said.
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, who chairs the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said people are upset by Lankford’s stance.
“Although I understand and appreciate that the letter was written, many people don’t,” he said. “And so, that’s what I think is tragic. It has damaged a lot of feelings of people that support the work.”
In a response letter to Lankford, Matthews also wrote that the Commission’s “mission is truth-telling and racial reconciliation is our true north.”
Matthews also said there are people who are calling for Lankford to step down or be removed from the commission.
“It’s kind of hard for me to believe he didn’t understand exactly what he was doing," said Anthony Douglas, president of the Oklahoma State NAACP.
Douglas also wondered what good are words of apology unless a person is willing to put them into action.
“The action he can take to show Oklahomans that his intent was not to suppress the Black voter is to force reparations for the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot Massacre,” said Douglas, who also serves on the national board of directors for the NAACP.
He said he’s reaching out to Lankford to have a one-on-one meeting with him.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Tahlequah Daily Press staff contributed to this report.