A South Dakota politician with a history of stirring up racial controversy is using a Black History Month resolution to attack the Democratic Party and claim the U.S. has a “positive history on race and slavery.”
The resolution has raised some ire in South Dakota, a reliably Red state with a meager Black population. South Dakota has about 900,000 people; only 1,400, fewer than 2 percent, are Black.
“Politicizing Black History month is a low blow,” Nikki Gronli, vice chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party, told The Daily Beast, calling the resolution “shameful.”
It was introduced by state Rep. Phil Jensen, a Rapid City Republican, who offered up his own interpretation of Black history in America, downplayed American involvement in slavery, and took potshots at Democrats.
The proposed resolution, which has no legal authority, states that the first two English colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts “began a dual track for African Americans, with much slavery and oppression in the South and much freedom and opportunity in the North, including the early right to vote and hold office.”
It lists prominent Black leaders and notable figures including early elected official Mathias DeSouza; Crispus Attucks, who was killed in the Boston Massacre; Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr. Barack Obama, the only Black president in American history and a Democrat, is not named.
It denies that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document, saying the three-fifths clause, which counted the enslaved as less than a full person in the census, has been misinterpreted. And he wrote that the “United States was not a major world leader in the African slave trade.”
The resolution repeatedly portrays Democrats as supporters of slavery and oppression, using the term “Democrat-controlled Congress” several times as it lists Jensen’s take on history. He goes from colonial times to the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860 to post-Civil War policies all the way to congressional battles over civil rights in the mid-20th century. In virtually every example, Jensen takes a swipe at Democrats.
It concludes by saying South Dakotans should “celebrate the contributions of all people, especially those of black heritage, during Black History Month, and express gratitude for contributions that have spanned generations and will impact many more in the coming years.”
Jensen told The Daily Beast that he has been working on the resolution for the past two years and expects it to pass the House, where Republicans hold a 62-8 majority
“Since we have no staff or secretaries I have to rely on others to provide historical information,” he said.
“I’m bringing this exhaustive resolution because I see a serious distortion in what is being taught as history,” he said referring to The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 project.
He said there has been little feedback so far, although the resolution has lit up social media.
“For a concurrent resolution celebrating Black History Month, this document ... seems focused on a whole lot of other things,” tweeted Jackie Hendry, host of South Dakota Focus on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
State Rep. Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said she is seeking to alter the proposed resolution. The bill has been pushed back until Monday, which she called “good news,” while wondering what “crazy statements” Jensen may offer as amendments.
“I’ve amended this to outline SD black history,” said Duba, who authored her own resolution on Black History Month that passed in 2020. “If the amendment is defeated we are prepared to speak against this. I hope my amendment passes and we won’t need to go down that ugly ... We want to make this a positive and not wallow in this garbage.”
Gronli, the state Democratic Party official said the resolution “is filled with manipulated facts.”
This resolution even goes as far as stating that there are ‘positives’ to slavery. That is just ludicrous. It’s shameful to think this resolution would in any way make our Black citizens feel appreciated, or that it celebrates a month that should be about the rich history and accomplishments of Black Americans.”
Jensen co-sponsored a bill marking Black History Month in 2019 but it was considerably shorter and attracted far less attention.
However, he did make headlines when he handed flyers to high school students visiting the capital, Pierre, on Feb. 28, 2019. The flyers made several of the same points as the new resolution, trying to link racism and the Ku Klux Klan to the Democratic Party.
“My concern is that public school children are not being taught true black history," Jensen said in a statement after his actions were criticized. “I realized that a couple items on the handout may have offended the sensibilities of my colleagues, but that was not my intent.”
Jensen, who has served in the Legislature since 2009, both in the House and Senate, has been called the most conservative member of the Legislature, which has long been under GOP control.
In 2014, he told the Rapid City Journal that he supported businesses discriminating against customers based on race or religion, saying the free market should handle that, not the government. He had backed a bill that would have allowed businesses to be allowed to deny service to customers based on sexual orientation without fear of being sued.
“If someone was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and they were running a little bakery for instance, the majority of us would find it detestable that they refuse to serve Blacks and guess what? In a matter of weeks or so that business would shut down because no one is going to patronize them,” Jensen said.