One of the two Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members who was expelled from the University of Oklahoma for participating in a racist chant apologized on Wednesday. Levi Pettit spoke with black politicians, pastors and community leaders for about two hours and later addressed the press at the Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in northeast Oklahoma City, but Pettit would not reveal how he learned the infamous chant.
“Let me start by saying that I am sorry. Deeply sorry,” Pettit said. “I am so sorry for all the pain that I have caused and I want you all to know that directly from me.”
Pettit, who grew up in the Dallas area, said he had not spoken publicly because he had a mix of “pain, shame and fear,” and he did not want to apologize to the nation until he had met with the community most directly impacted by his actions.
“I never thought of myself as a racist. I never considered it a possibility. But the bottom line is that the words that were said in that chant were mean, hateful and racist,” Pettit said.
Pettit read from a letter of apology he sent to University of President David Boren in which he asked for forgiveness.
“All the good that I have done in my life by helping bring people together has been erased by a six second video and I will carry this burden forever,” Pettit said.
Pettit said he wants to find some positives out of the situation and help prevent the same sort of thing from happening again. He added that he should have stood up as a leader on that bus to stop the chant.
When asked where he learned the chant, Pettit simply answered that he was only here to apologize for what he did. He said he knew the words that he used were wrong -- including the “n word” and reference to lynching -- but he did not know why they were wrong until he met state senator Anastasia Pittman and other black leaders who surrounded Pettit at the podium.
Pettit reached out to Pittman to request a meeting with the African American community. She said she accepted Pettit’s apology and believes that he is sincere.
“We can use this as a platform to educate the public and be able to call upon the governor of our great state to make sure that we, by executive order, be inclusive of African American history in our curriculum and in our schools so that the exposure to children all across this state will be equalized by the rich heritage that African Americans have made to the contributions of the state of Oklahoma as well as to America,” Pittman said.
Fairview Baptist Church pastor J.A.Reed, Jr. said he forgives Pettit but does not condone his actions. He believes Pettit and other students on the bus were practicing an acquired behavior when they sang the racist chant, and emphasized that children must learn African American history in the classroom.
“They [SAE members] did not know anything about lynching,” Reed said. “But we still have a great number of people in Oklahoma who do.”
Demetrius Gibson from Oklahoma City came to the church on Wednesday to listen to Pettit’s sentiments. Gibson believes Pettit is truly sorry for his actions but wonders why he couldn’t have been the leader he professes to be.
“Do you know the hearts and the souls that you hurt and reach out and dig out when you actually decide to use those words in a derogatory way towards another race rather than being inclusive and loving and caring,” Gibson said.
Oklahoma City resident Teresa Hill was in the private room with Levi Pettit when he made his apology earlier that day. She thinks Pettit did not understand the meaning of the words in the chant and what they mean to the African American community.
“It wasn’t so much the ‘n word’ as the lynching part that hurt the community,” Hill said. “We talked about the history of our community and some people explained to him some things they went through in history. As he cried, we all felt he was genuine in his words.”