Learning Tulsa’s Lesson.
It’s been a century since the Tulsa Race Massacre—but the demise of the Jan. 6 commission shows that we still haven’t learned the lesson.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Credited in various forms to everyone from Irish Politician Edmond Burke to philosopher George Santayana, the quote was a favorite of my high school civics teacher. But, time and time again, we Americans fail to remember the history of our country.
So much of American history repeats itself—most often when it has to do with the fight for civil rights and democratic freedoms in this country.
Last week, Senate Republicans voted down a (previously bipartisan) proposal for a commission into the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Though they profess to support “law and order” and oppose mob violence, they’ve revealed their allegiance to the Trumpism that caused it.
Consider Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The day after voting to acquit the president in his second impeachment trial, McConnell turned on his heels to deliver a blistering attack on Trump. Pointing the blame straight at him, McConnell declared Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the attack. He signaled support for a commission into the events of Jan. 6. And then, step by step, he dismantled any prospects the commission had. “They’d like to continue to litigate the former president, into the future,” he said of Democrats after the deed was done. McConnell offers a masterclass in civic obstinance with plausible deniability.
The bigger picture here is that Republicans are attempting to erase the insurrection from our collective memory—and, in turn, our history. Burying the insurrection gives credence to their mythical narrative of election fraud and the massive voter suppression they are perpetrating on its back. That way, perhaps we’ll forget how ugly the ideology is underneath the slower-moving, bureaucratic insurrection they are perpetrating against democracy (and particularly among Black suffrage) in state houses across the country. Indeed, avoiding accountability for the most vile and violent consequence of Trumpism is intended to offer cover for the ideology underneath it—and the unfinished work it has in store for us. How do we know this? Tulsa.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when a violent white supremacist mob rampaged through Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a thriving Black community nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” Though a mob, much of the devastation was premeditated and coordinated by Tulsa’s well-heeled white supremacists. Indeed, private airplanes were used to firebomb the community. The massacre was aided and abetted by official law enforcement. Members of the mob were deputized by the Tulsa Police Department. The Oklahoma National Guard arrested and interned 4,000 Black residents while their homes and community were being destroyed.
Historians surmise that 300 Greenwood residents were murdered, and 10,000 lost their homes as their community was burnt to ashes. And then there was the coverup.
In his book, Death in a Promised Land, historian Scott Ellsworth recounts how the carnage was buried. Though the massacre was covered by national and international media at the time—white Tulsans even sold postcards of the carnage—the systems of power in Tulsa led a concerted effort to bury the memory and maintain their position as the world’s oil capital. Ellsworth notes, “The businessmen, the political types and whatnot all realize fairly quickly that they had a huge PR problem with the massacre.” Ultimately, none of the white people responsible for the massacre were ever charged—though several Black victims of the violence were.
It’s tempting to believe that Tulsa was an isolated incident. It was not. Rather, it was part of a rash of post-World War I violence against Black folks who had moved during the Great Migration in search of livelihoods, only to be attacked by returning servicemen who saw them as competing for the same jobs. In fact, the summer of 1919, just two years earlier, was called the “Red Summer” because of attacks against Black communities across the US.
All of this was only four decades after the end of reconstruction (think 1970s from our time for context). The president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, was a segregationist who advanced the “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War, reframing it from a war over slavery to a war about states rights. He segregated the federal workforce. He played the KKK propaganda film “Birth of a Nation” inside the White House and praised the Klan as an “Invisible Empire of the South.” Klan membership was on the rise, with nearly 100,000 members in Oklahoma by that time.
Tulsa was the wake-up call that was never heard. Failing to head it meant failing to force America to look squarely at the ugliest manifestations of the ideology of white supremacy operating within it—which meant allowing it to persist, unchecked. By failing to hold the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Massacre accountable, both in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion, violence against Black Americans, both physical and civic, was welcome to persist. That white supremacy led to decades more of brutality, destruction, and oppression among Black Americans.
History is repeating itself right now. The same currents of white supremacy are operating in our society today. They attacked our democracy on Jan. 6. And by failing to force America to look at its ugliest consequences, its sympathizers are allowing it to persist and spread.
But perhaps it’s not that Americans haven’t learned their history. Perhaps sympathizers of the Jan. 6 insurrection mob are actually implementing history’s lessons in real time.
Republican elites like Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, or Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik want to hide the worst excesses of their ideology so they can continue to perpetrate it. In trying to bury the insurrection, they are doing its work for it.