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The 1921 Tulsa massacre and Amercia’s amnesia

At the height of the pandemic last year, American music icon Bob Dylan released his first album since 2012. It included a 17-minute song that sounded like a lesson in US history and political culture.

The song, Murder Most Foul, focussed on the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. But later in the song, he says: Play, Tragedy play, Twilight Time”, Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime.

For those who are not expert in American history may find the two lines odd as they may sound as of coming out of nowhere. But Dylan, the 2106 Noble Literature Prize winner and widely regarded as one of the greatest song writers in the US history, knows what he is talking about.

More by Mohammed Almezel

The man, a symbol of the civil rights movement, was reminding America of the worst single racial massacre in its history, the 1921 Tulsa massacre, which America evidently tried very hard to erase from the history records for 100 years.

Over the weekend, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder was marked in the US. President Joe Biden invited the family of Floyd, who was killed while in police custody last year, to the White House. Vigils and memorials have been held all over the country to mark his death, which sparked massive anti-racism protests last summer.

But for 100 years, nobody marked the murder anniversary of the victims of the Tulsa Massacre, where a complete all- black town was not only wiped off the map by white mobs but also erased from history books and suppressed by the collective memory of the nation.

Total recall

It all happened 100 years ago. On the 31st of May 1921 to be exact. Hundreds of white men and women, many of whom belonged to the infamous Ku Klux Klan racist organisation, attacked a prosperous neighbourhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma— the Greenwood community, known then as Black Wall Street.

Over the course of 18 hours, the white mob lynched and killed at least 200 black men, women and children in Greenwood, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses — more than one thousand homes, restaurants, movie theatres, churches and doctors’ offices, a hospital, a public library, a post office were looted, burned, and even bombed from the air. And it took the state of Oklahoma more than seven decades to acknowledge the massacre and investigate it.

It was like a nation in amnesia, a collective effort to suppress a bad memory. Except that the collective denial was not out of shame, but most probably out of a strong feeling that the memory of such horrific crimes will soil the reputation of America and the state of Oklahoma.

America isn’t supposed to be like other countries. Like ancient Rome, America was born as an idea, a romantic idea of an egalitarian society, the land of the free where justice is for all. But Tulsa will definitely testify to otherwise.

Historian Scott Ellsworth, a native of Tulsa, wrote three books on the massacre. The latest was published couple of weeks ago, on May 18. The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice reads like a thriller, describing in full details the prosperous community, its people and their daily lives, and narrating an incident involving a young black man and a white girl that may have led the white folks of Tulsa to perpetrate the worst racial massacre in US history.

It took the state of Oklahoma more than 70 years to investigate the massacre — named the Tulsa Race Riots in the official records. A committee that was formed in 1997 released a report four years later, in March 2001, which called for monetary reparations to the descendants of the victims. I doubt though that the money will be enough to make things right. Justice for the Tulsa victims require much more than all the money in the world.

Conspiracy of silence

The Tulsa disaster went largely unacknowledged for a half-century or more. After a while, it was largely forgotten. Eventually it became largely unknown. So hushed was mention of the subject that many pronounced it the final victim of a conspiracy, this a conspiracy of silence,” reads a paragraph in the report.

Ellsworth was one of the authors of the report. He wrote that for more than 50 years, it seems as if there was “a historical amnesia” that suppressed the memory of the massacre. “Oklahoma history textbooks published during the 1920s did not mention the riot at all nor did ones published in the 1930s. Finally, in 1941, the riot was mentioned in the Oklahoma volume in the influential American Guide Series, but only in one brief paragraph,” he wrote.

The premeditated murder of the truth about the massacre happened shortly after it took place. The white officials who ran the state didn’t want ‘bad publicity’ as the newly- declared 46th state of Oklahoma (it became a state in 1907) was trying to attract money and investment. Recognition of the massacre would hamper those efforts.

Oklahoma, in the south central region of the US, just above Texas, is considered today the most conservative state in America. Not a single county in the state voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. All of its counties voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Thus, the real compensation for the victims of the massacre begins with an official national recognition of the injustice that befell the black people of Tulsa in 1921 and doesn’t end with the inclusion of the history of the massacre in school textbooks; an important gesture to ensure that such events don’t happen again.

The US history books talk much of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and many others. But they strangely tend to ignore American-perpetrated massacres such as not only the 1921 massacre in Tulsa but also the countless mass murders of native Americans, Vietnamese, and others.

It is remarkable that the US, including the top leadership in the White House, marked the anniversary of the George Floyd murder. But justice for Floyd and other African- Americans lynched, tortured, and killed by racist whites begins with acknowledging the 1921 massacre of Tulsa.