The Trump rally in Tulsa, in the future after June 19, brings again reminiscences of the 1921 racist bloodbath

For the second time in a century, the world’s attention is focused on Tulsa, Okla. You could be forgiven for the fact that Tulsa is a sleepy city “with the wind blowing down the plain,” according to the musical Oklahoma! .

But Tulsa was the site of one of the worst episodes of racist violence in American history, and a long, arduous process of reconciliation over the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre was shaken by President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally there since COVID – 19 pandemic began.

The city is on the edge. Emotions are raw. There is fear of a spike in coronavirus cases, but lurking deeper in the collective psyche is the fear that history will repeat itself. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters will congregate near an area that is still facing a white invasion that left hundreds of blacks dead.

In this photo taken on June 15, 2020, people walk past a mural on Black Wall Street in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla. Almost a century ago, dozens of black-owned business blocks were destroyed by a white mob in deadly racial unrest.
(AP Photo / Sue Ogrocki)

A Trump rally near a site of a massacre during a global pandemic already sounded like a recipe for a dangerous social experiment. But then there was the question of timing. The rally was scheduled to take place on June 19th (June 19th), a holiday to commemorate the day slaves in the western part of the Confederation who finally gained their freedom.

Usually, Tulsa’s Juneteenth is a big party, the rare event that brings white and black Oklahomans together. However, fears of spreading COVID-19 prompted organizers to cancel the event. Then came the protests against the police murder of George Floyd. During these demonstrations in Tulsa, a truck drove through a traffic blockade and dropped a protester from a bridge. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

COVID-19 cases are increasing

To make a bad situation worse, the city is seeing a surge in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have recognized that the spike in new cases mixed with nearly 20,000 people packed into an arena is “a perfect storm” that could fuel a super-spreader event.

Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum speaks during a press conference at Police Headquarters.
(Matt Barnard / Tulsa World via AP)

Some of Mayor GT Bynum’s biggest supporters asked him to cancel the event. Bynum is one of the rarest species, a Republican who has poured part of his political legacy into fighting racism. It was Bynum who shocked the white establishment by ordering an investigation into possible mass graves from the 1921 massacre, despite many Republicans accusing him of opening old wounds.

However, given the prospect of provoking a fight with Trump, Bynum was ambiguous.

Bynum was attacked by former friends and allies who urged him to do something. Then, on June 13, the Trump campaign announced that the rally would be changed to June 20, “out of respect”, to June 19. It was a minor victory for the protesters, but some remained angry at Bynum’s moral equivalence between the protests over Floyd’s death and a Trump campaign rally.

Reminds another mayor

The mayor’s impotence brought back memories of 1921. The mayor at the time, TD Evans, was unable or unwilling to stand between an angry white mob sitting down over fear of a “black riot” and a black community that promoted racial equality.

Evans saw the Ku Klux Klan’s influence on Oklahoma politics and quietly voiced his displeasure. When the Tulsa Tribune cultivated white paranoia about a black invasion of white Tulsa, Evans and many like him did little. “Despite warnings from blacks and whites that trouble is brewing,” Tulsa Word reporter Randy Krehbiel wrote in a book about the massacre, “(Evans) was largely silent.”

In this 1921 file burning by the Greenwood Cultural Center, Mt. Zion Baptist Church after it was set on fire by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.
(Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World via AP)

A historical parallel to 1921 stands above the rest: the power and influence of “false news” to mobilize alienated voters.

While much of a social media revolution and YouTube have been done to undercut traditional media goalkeepers, a false news article was the most obvious cause of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The Tulsa Tribune published an article on May 30, 1921 alleging unsubstantiated allegation that a black man, Dick Rowland, attempted to rape a white woman in an elevator downtown. The dog whistle came through loud and clear. No evidence was presented and the charges were later dropped. But the news was enough to trigger a demand for Rowland to be lynched.

Hundreds killed

A mob formed around the Tulsa courthouse. For months, the Tribune had stoked fear of a “black riot” and published stories of racial mixing, jazz and interracial dancing in black street houses.

A couple of blacks armed themselves and tried to stop the lynching. The sight of armed blacks made the white mob direct their anger on a bigger target – the black neighborhood of Greenwood.

By the beginning of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was in ruins, hundreds dead and thousands interned in camps. The devastation came as no surprise to those who watched the rise in xenophobia during World War I and the second coming of the KKK, an organization that received a boost after the 1915 showing of the racist film The Birth of a Nation at the White House.

Trump reaches into his suit jacket to read the remarks following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. He defended white supremacists after a Unite the Right rally that turned violent.
(AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Tulsa and the nation had been prepared for racist violence by white supremacist media and the presidential administration. Lots of well-intentioned people stood by, hoping the trouble would soon be over. It has not.

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. In the spring of 1921, Tulsa got the tragedy. With Trump gathering tens of thousands of his supporters near Greenwood amid a deadly pandemic, the best we can hope for this time around is farce.

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