Pastor John Ogletree never imagined he would be unseated from his local school board position amid charges that he is a Black liberal racist.
But after 17 years of service, he is out of office — along with two other board colleagues — due to an organized campaign by white Christian nationalists to take control of a suburban Houston district. The rapid and radical change of course in the Cy-Fair Independent School District fits the pattern of a nationwide movement fueled and funded by the same ultra-right-wing forces that have taken control of the Republican Party in Texas and nationally.
Although school board elections in Texas are — or used to be — nonpartisan, the two other board members voted out by an angry mob are registered Republicans, just not the kind of Republicans who think Black Baptist pastors are racists. The three candidates who unseated them were promoted as a bloc by the local Republican Party.
Beloved pastor and denominational figure
Ogletree is well-known among Texas Baptists, where he has served in volunteer capacities with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and Union Baptist Association — two decidedly not-liberal organizations by most definitions.
“Pastor O,” as his congregation knows him, is a Dallas native who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1973 and a law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston in 1979. He and his wife, Evelyn, started First Metropolitan Church in Northwest Houston in 1986. They serve together there to this day.
As a means of engaging with the community, Ogletree ran for the school board 17 years ago. He was the third Black resident to serve on the board and is the only Black president in the board’s history. With his departure, there are no Black board members.
‘We thought we had it going on’
Cy-Fair is short for Cypress-Fairbanks. The school district covers 186 square miles of mainly unincorporated Harris County, which lies in the northwest quadrant of metropolitan Houston.
Although the district currently posts no student demographic information on its website, data collected by the Texas Tribune show the district’s 117,000 students are 45% Hispanic, 23% white, 19% Black, and 9% Asian.
“We were what we thought was a stellar district,” Ogletree said in interview. “We were building new schools, doing new things. We thought we had it going on until June of this year when they came to our school board meeting, packed it out and started talking about Critical Race Theory.”
“They” in this case is a group Ogletree describes as the local Tea Party, who followed to a T a script from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is among several national organizations instructing followers how to use Critical Race Theory as a tool to whip up emotion and gain control of local school boards.
National organization of local races
For example, one instructional article on the Heritage website begins by asking parents to apply this test to suss out Critical Race Theory hiding in their children’s schools: “Is your school principal denying that her school makes use of Critical Race Theory when you call to complain about it? If so, it’s likely that she’s either misinformed, or just spreading disinformation.”
The Heritage website highlights several places in society where concerned conservatives should be on the lookout for Critical Race Theory and work to turn back the tide of liberalism, which it says often hides under dangerous terms such as “equity.” One of those common places is the world of education, it says.
Heritage Foundation has produced a guidebook for those who want to join the fight against this perceived liberal bias, Knowing Critical Race Theory When You See It and Fighting It When You Can.
Opposition to a resolution opposing racism
In a trend that has been especially prevalent in Texas, but has been noted nationwide, a group of “concerned parents” organized in opposition to a resolution adopted in October 2020 stating the Cy-Fair district’s commitment to work against systemic racism. The resolution said the district would work to “eliminate racism, systemic racism, discrimination, injustice and inequality in any and all its forms.”
Parents and community members organized to oppose the racism resolution as promoting Critical Race Theory began packing school board meetings and using the public comment time to quote Bible verses and equate Christianity with patriotism.
In June, August, September and October of this year, parents and community members organized to oppose the racism resolution as promoting Critical Race Theory began packing school board meetings and using the public comment time to quote Bible verses and equate Christianity with patriotism while demanding that the school board back off any emphasis on equity and inclusion.
All of these equity initiatives, the critics said, are Critical Race Theory in disguise and are dangerous to children and democracy.
“They criticized any emotional or social learning, even though the state requires that,” Ogletree explained. “They also attacked demographic breakdowns. They asked why we needed to break down how many Blacks, how many Asians, how many Hispanics” are served by the district.”
Today, there is no student demographic information available on the district’s website or in its annual report. And not only has the resolution on racism been removed from the district’s website, the school board also has instructed district leaders to suspend an anti-bias education program created by the Anti-Defamation League that had been in use there 20 years. “No Place for Hate” is described as a program “to create and maintain school environments where all students can thrive through anti-bias and bullying-prevention activities.”
Targeting Ogletree specifically
As summer turned to fall, the focus of the angry parents at the school board meetings increasingly turned to castigating Ogletree specifically. He had been the author of the anti-racism resolution and had made a few anti-racist posts to his own social media accounts that the white Christian nationalists said were themselves racist.
One of those, for example, related to the insurrection by Trump loyalists at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Ogletree posted: “If you want to understand white privilege just watch the videos of the insurrection on the US Capitol Grounds.”
He also posted after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And on the continued cycle of abuse of Black citizens. One of his posts said: “When will the white pulpit be as repulsed by the taking of an innocent Black life as it by the taking of the life of an unborn fetus?”
Armed with these few posts, the pastor’s critics created a special website called Ogletree Is a Racist.
The irony of a Black Baptist pastor being targeted as a racist is not lost on Ogletree. “That’s what’s mind-boggling,” he said.
Friends and church members laughed at the thought of him being a racist. “But it worked for them (the opponents). I got threats, taunts, trolls; some of the real racism really came out.”
How did this happen?
On election day, Ogletree was defeated by Natalie Blasingame, a former assistant superintendent in the Houston Independent School District and vocal critic of Critical Race Theory.
In a pre-election questionnaire published by a political action committee known as Conservative Coalition of Harris County, Blasingame said: “The kids of today love each other and are not inherently racist. … We must not harm them and our country by teaching them to hate each other. … There is power in unity — it’s biblical. If the church will come together in unity and purpose, there IS incredible power in it to change the world. Make no mistake, CRT is antithetical to the Gospel of Peace.”
Her campaign website offered this pledge: “Dr. Blasingame is a woman of faith and values. She will fight to ensure religious freedom is protected in our schools … for students, teachers, staff members, and parents. She will be a strong watchdog to ensure that dangerous ideologies (such as CRT) don’t continue to creep into our schools.”
Among three reasons she entered the race, Blasingame said on the site, is this: “We must take our schools back from all the ‘isms’ and agendas that are running unfettered in our schools while people of faith are muzzled. I seek to impact the over-interpretation of separation of church and state in our schools that keeps employees in fear, and unfairly shuts down students’ rights due to vague or absent policies and inadequate staff training. Religious freedom does not get checked at the schoolhouse door, and I intend to address that at the policy and training level. I also see pathways in parent choice where school can directly align with parents’ faith and values through pathways, academies, programs, district charters of choice, etc. within the public school system where 98% of the nation’s kids go to school.”
Asked if he understands now what happened to three long-serving school board members sent packing and replaced with ultra-conservative ideologues, Ogletree offers several explanations.
“One of the keys is that they did this in an off-year election where voter turnout is not as high,” he said. “The Tea Party is very strong, and what happened in our area is the Harris County Republican Party got involved in the local nonpartisan election. They sent out a communique saying that this indoctrination of our students has to stop and that liberals, the liberals, have taken over and changed education. And also with a Marxist tilt.”
His opponents “used Facebook groups, NextDoor Neighbor, to talk about the indoctrination of the kids, the liberal bent, and also they even used Crime Stoppers posts,” he added.
“On top of this, we had pastors who support the district, who know we’ve been doing well, who were silent. Silent. Didn’t say a thing. In a way, I can understand it; if you have a congregation and half your congregation are Trump supporters, Fox News and all that, it’s hard to really point people toward the gospel.”
The Jeremiah and Scarborough influence
A few strong personalities also drove the public campaign against him and his fellow incumbents. One of those was a local doctor “who is a Republican conservative who really is far right. He sent out two communiques in our area calling us Marxist, liberal, anti-Christian. He endorsed these Tea Party candidates.”
Yet another was the fundamentalist televangelist David Jeremiah, who was doing a local crusade near the time of the election and weighed in against Critical Race Theory.
And another of those rallying the troops to unseat school board members both in Cy-Fair and nearby Houston this fall was a name well-known to Texas Baptists who’ve been following religion and politics for the past 20 years: Rick Scarborough.
A graduate of Houston Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he previously served as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Pearland, part of the Houston metro area. He left that pastorate in 2002 to form a conservative religio-political advocacy group called Recover America.
He first became involved in politics when, as a pastor, he was upset by what his daughter was taught at her public school about HIV/AIDS. That led to an effort by his Pearland congregation to take over its local school board, and also the city council and several other forms of government. The effort was partially successful for a while but ultimately split the church.
Scarborough has remained an elite culture warrior, counseling Republican elected officials in Texas and in Washington. He revels in attention-getting sound bites, such as this reported by the Houston Chronicle: “The whole concept of separation of church and state is a myth propagated by liberal judges. It’s not in the Constitution.”
He also was involved in the 1998 split of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which led to creation of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, perceived to be more loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention after its rightward shift in the 1990s.
Right Wing Watch documented the involvement of Scarborough and Recover America in this fall’s election cycle. He held revivals and rallies in the area, stirring up concern about “liberal” school board members pushing Critical Race Theory.
As for what’s likely to happen now in the third-largest school district in Texas, Ogletree remains optimistic.
I think the district right now is going to be all right,” he said. “They put three members on the board, so they are outnumbered because it’s a seven-member board; they do not have a majority. What I believe they are going to do is try to disrupt.”
As an example, he cited this experience from the last school board meeting before the election. The board agenda included affirming an agreement to coordinate with a university on a research project.
The threat “is real and they’ve decided to focus on the local elections principally.”
“One of the Tea Party guys who won, he asked us to table that because in his words, ‘I don’t know what kind of research is going to be going on and I don’t want my daughter researched.’ Everything is going to be suspicious.”
But Ogletree also has a warning for anyone who thinks this can’t happen in their public school district too: It can. And it can happen fast.
“Don’t take them for granted,” he said of parents who show up to protest Critical Race Theory, equity, diversity or inclusion. The threat “is real and they’ve decided to focus on the local elections principally.”
Defeating these Christian nationalists requires organization, because they come highly organized and inspired by outside forces, Ogletree explained. “You’ve got to organize. It’s going to take organization and money because that’s what they had here. Hopefully some Christian people will speak up and say, ‘Hey, diversity is all right.’”
And as a pastor, he wants to set the record straight: “To them, anytime you mention diversity, equity, inclusion, that’s Critical Race Theory. To me, that’s Jesus, that’s gospel.”
White hysteria, Critical Race Theory, and eyes that dare not see | Opinion by David Gushee