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Lessons of the Tulsa Race Riots

Jill Garvey • Sep 03, 2009

On May 31, 1921 the reputation of Oklahoma was irreparably harmed when racial tensions turned violent in the thriving town of Tulsa. With over 300 African Americans murdered (some estimates reach into the thousands), and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed in just one day of mob violence - it was one of the cruelest days in American history. It is believed the sheriff deputized members of the white mob as they set upon Tulsa’s prosperous black neighborhoods.

On June 29, 1921, an article appeared in The Nation by Walter F. White, (future director of the NAACP). His chilling testimony of what he found in the aftermath continues to stand as a stark warning for America today and tomorrow:

“One could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa. Her reign of terror stands as a grim reminder of the grip mob violence has on the throat of America, and the ever-present possibility of devastating race conflicts where least expected.”

The deadly riots may have come as a surprise, but the warning signs were there. Power and prosperity, or a lack of, is embedded in the U.S.’s racist history. Actual or perceived shifts in power and wealth are invaluable tools to the leaders of racist movements. In 1921 there really was wealth in the hands of Tulsa’s 15,000 residents of color, but not much power. Today there is increased political power, but diminishing wealth for communities of color. A Black president is a symbol of hope, a sign of change, but not a tangible increase in racial equality. All in all, the cards are still stacked against a person of color in the United States, and far right extremist are still creating conspiracy theories to keep it that way.

The legacy of violence continued in the 1990s with the rise and fall of white militia groups, which peaked with the nation’s deadliest act of domestic terrorism in 1995. Carried out by Timothy McVeigh and other militia members, the Oklahoma City bombing came as a shock to most Americans who couldn’t fathom the type of organized racism that generated the attack. Sarah Ferguson writes in The Cornell Daily Sun,

“After several years of growth in the 1990s, the militias began losing power and for the past decade they have nearly disappeared. However, they are returning and with greater strength than ever. Right-wing, tax defiance, racism, sovereignty, and weapon advocacy are just a few characteristics of the newly reinvented militias.”

88 years after the Tulsa race riots, echoes of Oklahoma’s bloody past were heard again when an African-American pastor was murdered in what appears to be a hate crime. Rev. Carol Daniels, 61, was killed inside the Christ Holy Sanctified Church on Aug. 23 as she prepared for her Sunday sermon. While it is unclear the exact motives of the killer, investigators indicated that the crime may have been racially motivated. Combine this with the rash of hate crimes over the last year nationally and we have a strong forewarning of a deeper resurgence of racist violence.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s recent report Return of the Militias,

“A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man. That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate. One result has been a remarkable rash of domestic terror incidents since the presidential campaign, most of them related to anger over the election of Barack Obama. At the same time, ostensibly mainstream politicians and media pundits have helped to spread Patriot and related propaganda, from conspiracy theories about a secret network of U.S. concentration camps to wholly unsubstantiated claims about the president’s country of birth.”

Oklahoma may have a shameful history, but today’s racism knows no borders. Today, the nation as a whole must contend with, and counter dangerous racial tensions. May our past tragedies help us seek new paths to reconciliation…before more bloodshed taints America’s history of tomorrow.

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