Rashid: Virginia Can Still Learn Lessons From The Tulsa Race Massacre

FILE - This photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa shows the ruins of Dunbar Elementary School and the Masonic Hall in the aftermath of the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)

By Qasim Rashid

June 1, 2021

America cannot fulfill its founding promise of equal justice for all without meaningful accountability for those who violate that equal justice.

STAFFORD-May 31 and June 1 mark the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It’s a massacre that stands as one of the most horrific acts of racial violence in American history, and also one of the most underreported and underrecognized. One hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre resulted in zero consequences for the culprits who ignited the white supremacist led massacre, it appears those who ignited the white supremacist led January 6 insurrection will also escape with zero consequences after the GOP blocked a commission to investigate the attack.

The Tulsa Race Massacre and the January 6 Insurrection are each atrocities in their own right, but are connected in that both stem from a failure to uphold equal justice and condemn white supremacy. The extremists behind Tulsa were enraged at historic Black economic success. The extremists behind the January 6 insurrection were enraged at historic Black participation in the civic process. The common denominator is that America’s historical failure to hold white supremacists accountable has enabled ongoing racial violence throughout American history, up to and including today. It is no wonder that every intelligence agency points to white supremacy terrorism as the greatest threat to American national security today.

A Growing Problem

These failures have stemmed across politics, economics, and media. The Tulsa Massacre left as many as 300 Black people murdered, 35 Black owned city blocks destroyed, 800 Black people hospitalized, 8,000 Black people interned in homeless shelters, and 10,000+ Black people displaced. Yet, not a single culprit was brought to justice, no reparations were ever paid, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court horrifyingly rejected all civil suits and protected all insurance companies from having to pay out claims. Viola Fletcher, one of the last surviving members of the massacre, recently testified before Congress.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” Fletcher said. “[I] still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. [I] still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. [I] still hear airplanes flying overhead, I hear the screams. [I] have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

Malcolm X famously remarked, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” After the massacre, local and national media immediately whitewashed the attack on Black Americans. Despite the estimated 300 Black Americans killed, the Tulsa World led with “Two Whites Dead in Race Riot” and “Many More Whites Are Shot,”— completely erasing the mass destruction of Black people and Black livelihoods.

Likewise, in an early version of “All Lives Matter,” The Los Angeles Express and The San Diego Union ran headlines completely erasing the targeted attacks on Black Americans—instead only speaking about the estimated number of those killed.

Why Do We Whitewash History?

Not to be outdone, the New York Times made it seem like an equal number of white and Black Americans were killed in the massacre—when in reality fewer than 10 white Americans died as Black Americans fled for their lives and defended themselves from mortal anger. And today, in an ongoing reminder of the injustices committed during this massacre, the GOP insists on whitewashing this history and censoring study of atrocities like the Tulsa Race Massacre.

And as if we’ve learned nothing over the last century, right wing media, politicians, and pundits are already whitewashing the January 6 insurrection as a peaceful march or “Capitol tour.” And just as there was no accountability for the culprits behind the Tulsa Massacre, the GOP is now blocking a commission to demand accountability for the January 6 insurrection.

Democrats accepted the terms proposed by Republicans to ensure a bipartisan commission and even pointed to the GOP calls on January 6 for a 9/11 style commission. Indeed, the January 6 commission proposal is a virtual copy/paste of the 9/11 commission. Despite this, the House only had 35 Republicans vote yes, and the Senate only had 6 Republicans vote yes—ensuring it would not pass due to the archaic and racist Senate filibuster.

The Bottom Line

Here’s the bottom line. Whether it’s Tulsa 1921 or Washington D.C. 2021, America cannot fulfill its founding promise of equal justice for all without meaningful accountability for those who violate that equal justice. Acknowledgement, reparations for the victims and their families, and an apology for Tulsa and Washington D.C. are a step towards justice.

But true reform will require a complete reimagining of public safety to counter the systemic violence against BIPOC communities. We cannot afford another century of apathy. If we are sincere about accountability for historical atrocities like the Tulsa Race Massacre, we must also be committed to accountability for contemporary atrocities like the January 6 insurrection.

That is how we meaningfully curb the tide of systemic racist violence, end white supremacy, and build a more perfect union that truly offers equal justice for all.

Qasim Rashid is a human rights lawyer, author, and Truman National Security Project Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @QasimRashid.

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