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Tulsa: Two racist white mobs — 1921 and 2020

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The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum A victim of the Tulsa race riot lays on the back of a flat bed truck outside Convention Hall as a white man with a shotgun stands on the truck.

Historians will look back at Donald Trump’s campaign rally on Saturday as the second major racist white mob in a century to wreak death and havoc in Tulsa.

More than 19,000 people are expected the crowd into Tulsa’s BOK Center for Trump’s first “Make America Great Again” rally since the COVID19 pandemic erupted in March. Large, crowded indoor events – especially where people are shouting, jumping up and down, and perspiring – are the most dangerous activities for spreading the coronavirus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health experts call such events a “super spreader,”  where a small number of individuals infect a disproportionately large number of others.

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The eagerness of so many white people to subject themselves to this danger reveals how much Trump’s followers have become a cult, fueled by racial hatred and indifference to science. The obsequiousness of Oklahoma’s Republican governor Kevin Stitt and Tulsa’s Republican mayor G.T. Bynum to permit the rally, and the eagerness of dozens of Republican politicians  — including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Representative Elise Stefanik of New York – to fly to Tulsa to serve as warm-up acts for the president, exposes how much Trump continues to dominate the party.

Saturday’s event will be a quiet riot, led by Trump and inflicted mostly on white Americans willing to risk death and disease to display their allegiance to their white supremacist leader.

In contrast, the 1921 Tulsa massacre was a violent attack on the city’s black community by white supremacists.  It took place on May 31 and June 1.  A white mob, including Klan members, destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a flourishing black business and residential area known as “Black Wall Street.”  Thirty-five city blocks were burned, over 800 people were injured, between 150 and 300 people died, and as many as 10,000 black Tulsans were left homeless.

Racial tensions had been increasing in post-World War One Oklahoma, including the  resurgence of the KKK. Lynchings were on the rise, often triggered by the spread of false rumors about a rape or robbery by a Black man.  The Tulsa massacre was prompted by the false rumor that a black teenager, Dick Rowland,  had sexually assaulted a white woman in an elevator in a building in downtown Tulsa, a segregated city of about 100,000 people. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune  reported that police had arrested Rowland for the alleged crime.

That evening an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse demanding that Sheriff Willard McCullough hand over Rowland. After he refused, thousands of white Tulsans —  some of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials – descended on the Greenwood area, looting and burning homes and businesses. Among the buildings destroyed or damaged by the fires were 1,256 houses, two newspapers, a hospital, a library, a school, several churches, hotels, stores and other black-owned businesses.

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Shortly before noon on June 1, Gov. J.B.A. Robertson declared martial law and ordered the National Guard to the scene. Instead of arresting the white mob, they rounded up and imprisoned 6,000 black Tulsans, who were placed under armed guard at the local fairgrounds. Hours after the massacre ended, the sheriff dropped all charges against  Rowland, who, fearing for his life, fled the area and never returned.  No whites were arrested for the death and destruction they perpetrated.

Oklahoma politicians, news media, and schools covered up the events for decades. The massacre was not mentioned in history books or taught in schools. Scholars didn’t begin to explore those events until the 1970s. In 1997,  under pressure from Oklahoma’s black community, the state formed a commission to investigate what was officially called the “Tulsa Race Riot.”  Its 2001 report catalyzed new interest in those events. At the urging of historians and local residents, in 2018 the study group was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

One result of that study is that  for the past few years, state archeologists have been looking for the massacre’s  victims in unmarked graves, an effort that was still underway until the COVID-19 outbreak erupted.

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Greenwood remains the epicenter of black Tulsa, which is still a highly segregated city. The state, city, and the Black community are making efforts to raise awareness of the massacre (by requiring that it be taught in public schools)  and to restore the area as a haven for black-owned businesses and black homeownership. Next year, the 100th anniversary of the massacre,  a state-appointed  Centennial Commission will open a new museum and archives, called Greenwood Rising, to commemorate the history and resilience of black Tulsa, including the massacre.

Tulsa is still plagued with racial injustice.  The poverty rate among Tulsa’s black population is 34 percent, compared with 13 percent among white Tulsans.

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The city’s black residents,  who comprise 15 percent of Tulsa’s population, are highly concentrated in predominantly black areas, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. They are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than white residents, the report documented.

The city was in an uproar  after two Tulsa police officers arrested a black teenager and handcuffed a second for jaywalking on June 4. A video shows an officer forcing one of the teenagers onto his stomach to handcuff him, while holding him down with his arms and knees. The incident is currently under investigation.

The police department faced another controversy after Tulsa Police Major Travis Yates told a conservative talk radio host on June 8 that systematic racism doesn’t exist and that “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be based on the crimes being committed.” The police chief Wendell Franklin, an African American, and Mayor  Bynum, who is white, denounced Yates’ comments.  The police department’s Internal Affairs Unit is  investigating.

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So black Tulsans were understandably upset over Trump’s upcoming visit to the city at the downtown BOK Center, within walking distance of the Greenwood area.

The event was originally scheduled for Friday, June 19, but he immediately got pushback because that is Juneteenth—the date in 1865 when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger emancipated slaves in Galveston, Texas, the last state to free its slaves. African Americans celebrate Juneteenth as a “second independence day.” Trump initially resisted calls to reschedule the rally but eventually capitulated, agreeing to delay it by one day.

Trump’s decision to hold the rally in Tulsa was intentionally inflammatory,  particularly in the midst of a national uprising over the recent murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police and the broader outrage over police racism.  Trump, who won 65% of Oklahoma’s votes in 2016,  is virtually certain to win again in November, so he isn’t coming to the city to win over voters in a must-win swing state.  “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists,”  tweeted Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) last week. “He’s throwing them a welcome home party.”  Trump’s visit could “reopen the wounds” of race hatred, warned State Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Democrat who represents the Greenwood area and is chair of the Centennial Commission.

By coming to Tulsa during a pandemic, Trump will be inflicting another potential massacre, only this time most of the victims will be white, and their illnesses and deaths will be completely voluntary. On Monday, Trump tweeted that almost a million people had requested tickets. He insisted that he won’t be “shamed” into canceling or postponing the event.  City officials predicted that about 100,000 people will come to Tulsa for the event, even though the BOK Center has room for only 19,000. The Trump campaign said it is considering putting some of the overflow crowd at the city’s indoor convention center, a block away, which has room for 40,000 people.

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Trump claimed that he picked Tulsa for the event because Governor Stitt had successfully lifted restrictions without a spike in COVID-19, sending a message that the worst of the pandemic is over.   Last week, Vice President Mike Pence, who will join Trump in Tulsa, said “they flattened the curve” in Oklahoma.

That’s a lie. Since Sitt completely reopened Oklahoma to business on June 1,  the state and Tulsa have seen a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases. On Friday, June 12, Tulsa County had 82 coronavirus cases, the largest one-day figure since the outbreak began in March, according to the Tulsa County Health Department. On Sunday, the number of new cases jumped to 89.  On Tuesday, the county saw 96 new cases – another peak.  The number of active virus cases in Tulsa County increased from 188 to 595 during that week.  Oklahoma also reported the largest one-week increase in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa County Health Department, warned city officials that crowding so many people in the indoor arena for several hours on a day when the outside temperature is predicted to be 90 degrees is a recipe for spreading the virus.

On Saturday he met with Mayor Bynum and urged him to “postpone the event until it’s safe for large crowds to gather indoors.”

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At a press conference on Wednesday, Dart warned: “So many people are over Covid, but Covid is not over.” He said that the rally could become a “super spreader” event that would result in more deaths.

Unlike the 1921 massacre, the local media did not encourage the upcoming episode  of white rage.  In fact, the conservative Tulsa World, the city’s daily paper, published  an editorial on Tuesday saying: “We don’t know why he chose Tulsa, but we can’t see any way that his visit will be good for the city,”

The same day, Meghan Blood,  the BOK Center’s marketing director, issued a statement saying that “Government officials have advised that the campaign rally as planned is consistent with the guidance for the OURS [Oklahoma’s  “Open Up and Recover Safely”]  plan for entertainment venues; however, in the event that the governing authorities impose new restrictions, we will notify the event organizers immediately.”

Bynum told the New York Times that he did not have the authority to postpone the rally and that he did not control bookings at the BOK Center.  In fact, city has to grant a permit for any event at the BOK Center, which is owned by the city but managed by a private company.

The Trump campaign says it will have hand sanitizer and masks available at the rally, but it will not  require people to wear them inside the arena. For sure, neither Trump nor the other Republican speakers at the event will be wearing masks.

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Despite the president’s hostility to science, the Trump campaign is fully aware that it is putting people in danger. It is requiring attendees to sign a form, waive their right to sue the campaign or the BOK Center, and “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”

Although Trump will bring his handful of Black surrogates to the rally – who no doubt will be seen on the platform behind him – almost all the participants in the rally, like its counterparts before the virus outbreak, will be   white.

But Trump’s white followers won’t be the only victims of the petri dish of disease inside the arena.

Because Trump’s rally is a “super-spreader” event, the attendees will be putting at risk many people they come in contact with after the rally – family members, customers in restaurants (where Oklahoma guidelines do not require social distancing), cab drivers, airport workers, and others who signed no waivers.  And because the BOK Center’s concession stands will be open to serve food and drinks during the event, its employees will also be subject to contracting the virus.

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Gov.  Stitt said he urged Trump to visit the Greenwood District  during his visit to Tulsa on Saturday. But local black residents said that Trump wouldn’t be welcome in that neighborhood.

“If he showed up here, I’d ask him to apologize to Black Americans,”   said Cleo Harris, a Tulsa native who owns Black Wall Street T-Shirts and Souvenirs in the Greenwood area. “I wouldn’t want to pose with him for a photo op. Coming to Tulsa during Juneteenth weekend and holding a  rally is a slap in the face to Black Americans. That’s the mindset of white supremacy.”

On Tuesday, two organizations in the heart of Tulsa’s black district – the Greenwood Cultural Center and the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation – sued the BOK Center, claiming that the Trump rally would be an incubator for a more dangerous coronavirus outbreak. Later that day, an Oklahoma judge declined to issue a court order to stop the rally but the groups’ attorney, Paul DeMuro, pledged to take the case to the state Supreme Court to block the rally unless the rally’s organizers impose social-distancing guidelines in the arena.

In the future, historians may compare the Trump rally to the 1921 Tulsa massacre. Or they may view it as more closely resembling  an event that occurred in 1978, when over 900 people, members of the California-based Peoples Temple cult, participated in a mass murder-suicide at the behest of their charismatic but paranoid leader, Jim Jones. in their  jungle commune in Jonestown, Guyana. They died by willingly drinking cyanide-poisoned Flavor Aid.

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Trump is asking his cult followers to put themselves and others at risk of death by imbibing another poison –  white racism.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012), co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (2020), and coauthor of Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America, which will be published next year.


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