Kansas City Dr. Evans Shares Lessons Of Tulsa Race Riot

Dr. Ernest Evans is a professor of political science and criminal justice studies at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Today he shares a thoughtful, informative and prophetic essay with our blog community. 

Dr. Ernest Evans: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 - Lessons for America Today

 On May 31-June 1, 2021 we as a nation will observe the 100th anniversary of one of the most terrible incidents of violence in our history; namely the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot of May 31-June 1, 1921.  On May 30, 1921 a young black man got on an elevator in a building in downtown Tulsa.  The elevator operator was a young white woman.  The black man stumbled and grabbed the arm of the white woman for support, and she screamed.  He ran out of the building and tried to hide.  He was arrested the next day; the young white woman said that he had not assaulted her and she did not want to press charges.

   However, the situation quickly spiraled out of control.  The young black man was taken to the city jail.  One of the city's newspapers published a sensationalistic account of the incident and called for the young man to be lynched.  Fearful that this might happen, a number of black men gathered at the city jail to protect him--some of them were armed.  A white crowd confronted these black men, and shots were fired, killing several whites and blacks. The white population of Tulsa rose up in rage, and attacked the black neighborhoods of the city.

   To this day there is no agreement as to how many people were killed in this riot--but it could go as high as several hundred--most of them black people.  Some 35 city blocks of the city's black neighborhoods were burned to the ground. Order was restored on June 1, 1921 when the Oklahoma National Guard arrived and imposed martial law.

   An incident this terrible does not come out of nowhere.  It was the result of a "perfect storm" of events.  It was the aftermath of World War I and demobilized veterans, both black and white, were having trouble finding jobs because of an economic slump.  Many of the unemployed whites were jealous of the prosperity of Tulsa's black neighborhoods--this was the most economically well-off black community in America; it was widely known as "The Black Wall Street."

   Also, many ordinary Americans were fearful that the country was on the verge of revolutionary change.  The Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1920 had resulted in the "Red Scare" of 1919 in which the federal authorities arrested thousands of people on suspicion of being sympathizers to the Russian Communist.  The state of Oklahoma had its own share of leftist groups:  In the years leading up to World War I the state was the state in the nation that gave the highest percentage of its votes to the Socialist Party; in the 1912 Presidential election the Socialist Party nationally got 6% of the vote in the country as a whole; but in Oklahoma it got 22%. And, when the US entered WWI in April of 1917, there was the "Green Corn Rebellion" in which a group of angry Oklahoma farmers tried to stage a march on Washington to stop the war.

   So, in this already quite tense social environment, when the white population of Tulsa saw armed black men at the city jail it seemed to them that their worst nightmares were coming true:  A revolution was taking place in the US.  Fearful of this possibility, many white people grabbed guns and attacked "The Black Wall Street."

   This column will be published on the one year anniversary of the tragic death of George Floyd.  I do not want to be alarmist, but I am concerned that in America today, in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd's death, there are a lot of the same factors present that produced this terrible riot a century ago.  Race relations in the US have been getting steadily more polarized in the years since the death of Travon Martin in 2012; and the pandemic has led to a lot of economic suffering among ordinary Americans.  And, a lot of Americans on both sides of the aisle fear that the other side is trying to carry out a revolutionary takeover of the country.

   After the riot was over, a  lot of the on-the-scene observers feel that this riot might never had taken place had the local press reported what had happened on the elevator in an accurate and non-sensationalistic way, and had a lot of the local leaders stressed the need for restraint instead of "dumping gasoline of the fire."  As we as a nation prepare for what could be a racially tense summer, this is an important lesson to learn:  It is crucial that in this time of polarized  race relations in our country that the nation's journalists, politicians and community leaders not make the tragic mistake that too many people in Tulsa made in 1921 of inflaming an already too volatile situation.


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