Tulsa, site of next Trump rally, has a place in the memory of black Americans — a terrible one

Trump campaign officials knew, according to the Associated Press, that planning a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Juneteenth, a celebration of African-American emancipation, was offensive. They just didn’t know how offensive. They didn’t realize that some people would put it nearly on par with scheduling a Nazi rally at the gates of Auschwitz on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Why is Tulsa’s history so allegorically powerful? Because it showed the debased lengths to which white Americans, well into the 20th century, would go to destroy black lives and crush the hopes of black people for a better life, literally into dust.

According to Trump, his black friends (and I will take him at his word that he has some) convinced him that this Juneteenth, as America endures a huge racial reckoning, might not be the best time for his rabid supporters — some of whom, based on past experience, would come carrying Confederate flags  — to descend on Tulsa.

Instead they will gather there the following day, June 20. But for black Americans, the location will still evoke memories of an epic episode of mob violence and racial cleansing. 

Smoke coming from damaged properties following the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)
Smoke coming from damaged properties following the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

The nightmare began on the evening of May 31, 1921, after rumors raced through Tulsa that a black shoeshine boy had assaulted a 17-year-old white elevator girl. “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator” read a Tulsa Tribune headline.

Talk of lynching quickly took root. A mob gathered around the county courthouse where the black teen, Dick Rowland, was being held. The mob screamed for Rowland to be brought out. A small group of black war veterans armed themselves and went to the courthouse, hoping to protect him.

Angry words were exchanged, shots were fired and people lay dead in the street. The mob became an avenging army intent on destroying the Greenwood District, the most prosperous black community in America. The mob was joined by National Guardsmen and police. There were (unverified) reports of police-commandeered planes dropping nitroglycerin bombs as Tulsa’s whites contained what they described as a “negro uprising.” 

When the mob was done, a 35-block area had been destroyed and some 10,000 blacks were homeless. The Red Cross, which conducted a major relief operation in the aftermath, estimated the death toll at perhaps 300.

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Newspapers of the time attributed the outbreak to the usual suspects. “Negro Reds Started Riots,” shouted the Los Angeles Times. The San Francisco Chronicle blamed “Bolshevik Propaganda.” In a generally sympathetic commentary, the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out that blacks “fought for their country, just as the whites did. ... But it should not be forgotten that the strain of savagery in the race is not yet eliminated.”

The black-owned Philadelphia Tribune had a different view: “Once again has the attention of the world ... been called to the inhuman and brutal side of the American white man in his dealing with the colored people of this country.”

Tulsa’s was not an isolated incident. In the aftermath of the war to “save democracy,” white Americans set out to eradicate black hopes of equality. In 1919, violent riots had broken out in numerous cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C, and Omaha. The worst was in the small town of Elaine, Ark. 

The Arkansas Democrat blamed black radicals. In truth, those radicals were simple sharecroppers eager to unionize and get a better price for their cotton. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas describes the anarchy there as “by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States.” It says something sad and profound that in neither Tulsa nor Elaine do we even know precisely how many were killed — just that there were a lot

Whites inevitably blamed the violent outbreaks on blacks. The Chicago Tribune slammed the black press for spreading “propaganda” about racial equality. Such nonsense, concluded the Tribune, “is most generally ascribed to two causes: The presence of negro soldiers in France, where French women of the lower classes accepted them as equals, and the presence of an increasing number of agitators among negroes.”

National Guard troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African-American men to a detention center after the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)
National Guard troops, carrying rifles with bayonets attached, escort unarmed African-American men to a detention center after the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

A century later, at long last, we seem prepared to remember those long-redacted chapters of history free of the denial, excuses and victim blaming of the past. Encouragingly, substantial numbers of whites are listening to black peers. Several years ago I wrote “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” a book explaining the intense frustration experienced by America’s rising black middle class. I advised black readers about the danger of pointing out racism at work. In all likelihood, I warned, such behavior would be met with a white wall of denial that might destroy their careers. 

In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and of countless videos documenting racial bias, whites are finally accepting the fact that blacks have not been lying all these years. Finally, we are seriously debating whether the price of social order is the loss of so many black lives.

But there is an even deeper question. Why have we embraced an approach to policing that results in the deaths of so many civilians, white as well as black? European police typically kill a fraction of the number of people per capita that American cops do. World Population Review calculated that American cops kill at a rate of 28.4 per 10 million people annually, compared with a rate of 3.8 in France, 1.3 in Germany and 0.5 in the United Kingdom. In Norway, Denmark and Iceland, the number of people killed by police in a typical year is zero. In Iceland, cops don’t even carry guns. 

Last year in Norway, after an eight-hour standoff, police shot a man wielding a machete and a chain saw. His was the first police fatality of the year. Norway Today noted that police had fatally shot only five people in 15 years. In all such cases, the person was armed.

When I asked a Norwegian journalist about the difference in American and Norwegian statistics, she replied, “Police violence has never been an issue here. Actually, we mostly regard the U.S. handling of so many things as both extremely uncivilized and immature.” 

There is a rich irony in our current reality, which finds us governed by the most dishonest, least grown-up president in history as we finally face some difficult truths — and perhaps take some tenuous steps toward maturity. 

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Ellis Cose is the author of “Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America” (from which parts of this article are drawn) and “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America,” both due out this year. https://elliscose.com/ Twitter: @EllisCose.
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