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The Tulsa massacre 100 years on, what exactly happened?

Across 31 May and 1 June, we commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. This large terrorist attack against African American businesses and homes—known also as the ‘Black Wall Street’ massacre—took place across these days in 1921. President Joe Biden took an unusually powerful stance in his proclamation on 31 May, stating, “I call on the American people to reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country.” Biden also proclaimed that 31 May 2021 be officially recognised as a “Day of Remembrance: 100 Years After The 1921 Tulsa Massacre.”

The US President is set to visit Tulsa today to memorialise the Black Americans that were killed and displaced in one of the most horrific racial acts in the country’s history. This makes him the first US president to do so in history. In this visit, he will supposedly announce his administration’s next steps in closing the large racial wealth gap evident in the US. There will also be a declaration regarding discrimination in the housing market. Descendents of those who suffered during the Black Wall Street massacre are also rightfully demanding reparations for both their emotional and financial losses. Now, while this does seem like steps in the right direction, it is imperative that President Biden is held to his promises he will announce for Tulsa and racial equity in the US overall.

Biden’s visit is not the only impactful event happening on 1 June. Today the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma will begin to exhume bodies from what they believe to be an unmarked mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery linked to the 1921 attack. The Oklahoma Archeological Survey will be one of the main leaders in this excavation aiming to uncover a history that was intentionally hidden and destroyed. In order for us to grasp the magnitude of these events, we have to first understand their history.

What was Black Wall Street?

In the decades that followed slavery, African Americans were left in emotional, psychological and financial destitude. A wealthy black landowner by the name of O.W. Gurley purchased forty acres of land (known as the Greenwood district) in 1906, believing that it would be a “significant economic opportunity.” He was right. Founded by the descendants of enslaved people, the area of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma became one of the first hubs of prosperous black entrepreneurial business. The community also provided a level of safety from the segregation Jim Crow laws of the time; many formerly enslaved black people travelled there to escape the dangerous racial terror they had experienced.

The Greenwood district eventually became an economic powerhouse that earned its popular title—Black Wall Street. The district functioned autonomously, creating its own essential services. Greenwood formed its own hospital, school system, bank and even had its independently run public transport. They also had hundreds of recreational and retail businesses. The level of luxury and prosperity under which the black people of Greenwood lived was unprecedented.

What is the Tulsa massacre and how did it start?

By now I’m sure we have all seen countless video examples on the internet of white women weaponising that very white womanhood against black men and boys. This is not a new phenomenon. From Emmett Till to the Exonerated Five to now, very little has changed. More than thirty years before the case of Till, an accusation against a young black man ignited the massacre.

Dick Rowland, 19, was arrested on 31 May 1921, for allegedly assaulting a young white girl—there was very little evidence to prove so. In fact, the most prevalent accepted and trusted accounts stated that he merely tripped getting into an elevator and on instinct grabbed the arm of Sarah Page, the elevator’s conductor, as he fell. A white clerk called the police and reported it as an assault. The headlines that followed in the papers were incendiary claiming that Rowland sexually assaulted Page and had torn her clothes off.

Tensions rose when a white mob called for Rowland to be lynched. Many young black men from the Greenwood district went to the courthouse where Rowland was being held to attempt to protect him from the mob. The white mob grew increasingly violent and a fight broke out. After the incident, the group of black residents retreated back to their community. The following morning—1 June 1921—a mob of white people (estimated between one to two thousand) overran Greenwood. They attacked and shot the residents without mercy. This wasn’t the worst of it. They set fires across the entire neighbourhood and used airplanes to drop bombs. With an estimate of 300 deaths, 35 housing blocks demolished, 200 million (in today’s currency) lost, Black Wall Street was destroyed.


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100 years on from the Tulsa massacre, will anything change?

It is best to leave the answer to this question to the survivors and their descendents. Viola Fletcher, 107, was seven years old at the time of the Tulsa massacre. In a gut-wrenching statement before the House Judiciary subcommittee on 19 May 2021, Fletcher stated “I am seeking justice.”

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob. 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 everyday.”

While Biden’s potential promises create some hope of the future we must remember that it took a hundred years for the US to even acknowledge it. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another hundred for actual change. In the meantime, make the switch and try to buy from black-owned businesses. It’s the least you can do.

Americans need to keep a close eye on Biden and hold him to his promise

“Democracy has prevailed,” declared President Joseph R. Biden at his inauguration ceremony on Wednesday—his words echoing through tablets and smartphones and TV screens of Americans exasperated by four noxious years under President Trump. As the centrist septuagenarian was sworn into office, millions across the US (and the world), felt a great sense of relief and optimism that normalcy will be restored and that American democracy will survive the scourge of the MAGA movement.

Biden’s inauguration took place against the backdrop of the Capitol riot that erupted just weeks before the ceremony, as a mob of Trump supporters stormed Congress in an attempt to subvert the certification of Biden’s victory. “We learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile,” Biden has aptly remarked in his inaugural address, referring to the violence that raged through the Capitol and the obstinate campaign of lies launched by his predecessor and his GOP allies in a bid to steal the presidency.

But as we welcome the 46th president as a potential harbinger of a new era of civility, humanness, and democracy, we must pause and re-examine our myopic definition and understanding of what constitutes democracy and what has characterised the US’ relationship with it thus far.

More specifically, we should ask ourselves: why is it that only when the pillars of democracy within our own borders are visibly shaken we raise the alarm? After all, for decades, administrations of presidents from both parties have—while carrying the banner of leaders of the free world—waged senseless, illegal wars abroad, committed atrocious crimes against humanity, and orchestrated the overthrow of governments around the world in order to serve America’s strategic and economic interests. Such actions, for the most part, we met with bipartisan complicity and silence.

America’s legacy of bloody interventionism dates back to the Vietnam War. Tangled in the thicket of the Red Scare, presidents Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and Richard Nixon (Republican) have repeatedly lied to the American people about a Communist threat emanating from Vietnam in order to perpetuate an illegal war that had cost the lives of more than 3 million people (more than half of whom were Vietnamese civilians) and saw the expansion of the military industrial complex.

The US then set its sights on South and Central America, where socialist governments had threatened the West’s unbridled market access. In an attempt to overthrow the socialist government in Nicaragua, for instance, presidents Ronald Regan had George H. Bush had funded brutal militias, known as Contras, between 1979 and 1990. As the crimes committed by the Contras and their murder of innocent civilians (including women and children) became known, the Regan administration downplayed the severity of the atrocities and opted to continue backing the militias. The funding of the Contras persisted even after it was finally banned by Congress, through covert deals with the government of Iran.

And then, there is the Middle East—a region in which US interventionism continues to sow unfathomable destruction of innocent lives and vanquish any real chance of progress and democracy.

In the early 1990s, under the direction of President Clinton, the US had simultaneously launched a bombardment campaign and placed crippling economic sanctions on Iraq, which had devastated the nation and its civilian population. An estimated 576,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died as a result of the sanctions alone, according to a 1995 study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation. Yet Clinton’s administration exhibited no remorse over the tragedy. During a 1996 interview on television, Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, replied, “We think it’s worth it,” when she was confronted about the staggering death toll among Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks rattled the US and the world, former president George W. Bush capitalised on the nation’s pain and hysteria in order to launch his notorious global War on Terror. While expanding surveillance capabilities at home and sanctioning abhorrent torture programs of prisoners, President Bush repeatedly lied to the American people about Sadam Hussein’s nuclear capabilities in order to escalate the war in Iraq and justify a regime change there as well as in Afghanistan.

Then came President Obama, who, for all his supposedly good intentions and his bombastic rhetoric of hope, had nonetheless followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and embraced American imperialism in the Middle East. During his first 12 months in office, Obama expanded the US drone programme and surpassed the total number of drone strikes launched throughout the entire Bush era. Obama’s drone strikes, which were expanded to Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, resulted in the deaths of between 384 and 807 civilians, according to current estimates.

Under President Trump, the US drone programme was expanded even further in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, which led to thousands of deaths of innocent civilians. He had also vetoed a resolution by Congress to terminate US support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, thereby exacerbating one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises.

Yet the vast majority of Americans remained utterly silent as, over the decades, images of the suffering engendered and exacerbated by US imperialism flickered on our screens; America remained, as far as large swaths of the public and a crushing majority of representatives were concerned, the purveyor and protector of democracy. It was only when swarms of unruly Trump supporters invaded the Capitol building that many Americans began to question the country’s ostensibly unshakable bond with democracy.

In his inaugural address, Biden turned to the nations of the world, pledging to repair alliances and “engage with the world once again.” He vowed that the US “will lead not merely by the example of [its] power, but by the power of [its] example,” and that it will be “a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.” These are mighty words, and it is the responsibility of us, the public, as well as our elected officials, to hold him to his promise. Biden’s track-record on national security, as well as a number of hawks with arms-industry ties already nominated to his cabinet, make it clear that we will have to be particularly vigilant.

At this hour of catharsis and hope, and in the face of the colossal challenges ahead, we must ask ourselves: what is the value of our democracy if it thrives only within the borders of our fortress?