Pearl Harbor was not the first air attack on American soil. That scar was inflicted 20 years earlier in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31, 1921, a white army murdered hundreds of Black Americans in a frenzied massacre, and left thousands homeless and destitute. While rioters on the ground shot and burned their victims, aerial assailants dropped improvised bombs and fired rifles upon fleeing civilians.
The slaughter razed 35 city blocks, destroying houses, offices, restaurants, hotels, churches, theatres, medical clinics, chemists, grocery stores, a school, a hospital and the public library. Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood district, the wealthiest Black community in the nation — known as Black Wall Street — was reduced to rubble.
When they were finished, the white murderers went home to their families.
No one was prosecuted. No compensation was paid. Many Black survivors fled to rebuild their lives elsewhere. The white people stayed. Their savagery was erased from history.
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It wasn’t until more white men murdered 168 people in the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that memories began to stir. The blast that devastated the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building on a sunny spring morning was branded the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history. But that was not true. It was not even the worst in Oklahoma’s history.
In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature established the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to unearth the hidden horrors of that catastrophe. The final report, issued in 2001, found that city officials had colluded with the white mob to perpetrate the deadly rampage. The commission recommended reparations to the 118 living survivors of the massacre. Twenty years later the few left alive are still waiting.
Everything about this tragedy is both shocking and unsurprising. The brutality of the killers. The impunity for their crimes. The cover-up. The historical denial. Rinse and repeat.
These are the lies that bind Black America.
What happened in Tulsa was hardly an outlier. Colfax, Louisiana. Meridian, Mississippi. Wilmington, North Carolina. Ocoee, Florida. These ordinary towns and dozens more like them hosted largely forgotten race massacres. Lynchings were even more common. Huge crowds would gather, as though at a picnic. Postcards of the dead were printed to mark the occasion. Attendees collected them as souvenirs or mailed them to relatives and friends.
Most white Americans ignore this legacy. They argue it is all in the past. Even as many insist upon preserving “heritage”, they see no link between past injustices and contemporary inequalities. In their minds today’s America is a level playing field, where anyone who works hard and follows the rules can get ahead. Exactly when this level playing field began is harder to pin down.
Was it with the ending of slavery after the Civil War? Was it after reconstruction? Jackie Robinson joining major league baseball? The end of school segregation following Brown v Board of Education? The Civil Rights Act of 1964? The Voting Rights Act of 1965? The ban on housing discrimination due to redlining? The introduction of affirmative action? The election of Barack Obama to the presidency?
Each of these breakthroughs was an important step on the march to equality. And each was opposed fiercely by many white Americans. Racial progress has never been welcomed universally.
Ninety-nine years after the Tulsa massacre, the Minneapolis Police Department announced “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction”. The statement further reported: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
That man was George Floyd. His death one year ago sparked a worldwide uprising in protest against police violence towards Black people. In a rare instance of accountability Derek Chauvin, his killer, was convicted of murder and awaits sentence.
Without the video, would justice have been done?
US President Joe Biden has made racial reconciliation a key plank of his agenda. This week he met with Floyd’s family at the White House. Next week he will travel to Tulsa to commemorate the centenary of the bloodbath.
He has his work cut out for him. As the nation grapples with its past, there are many who still want to bury it. Republican legislators have moved to ban teaching of “critical race theory”, which they have deliberately mischaracterised as an attack on white people. Yet another salvo in their relentless culture wars. Their ability to weaponise language knows no bounds. Two weeks ago the governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, was removed from the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission for endorsing this deceit.
Conservatives have no intention of acknowledging racial injustice, let alone fixing it. They have spent the first months of 2021 enacting laws targeted to suppress Black voters in future elections. Soon they will draw freshly gerrymandered boundaries around federal and state legislative districts to rig victories for their dwindling white minority. Meanwhile they continue to abuse the Senate filibuster to block laws in Congress that would provide for free and fair elections, even as they lie outright about their motives. In the contest between democracy and power, their choice is clear.
When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, he was one of the most reviled men in America. Another truth whitewashed. Today he is lionised, even by those who still seek to prevent Black Americans from living his dream.
We have a long way to go.