Racist war in the USA, 1921: the Tulsa Massacre

Submitted by AWL on 1 June, 2021 - 2:52 Author: Sacha Ismail
Greenwood, Tulsa, after the massacre

The first of a series of articles on the Tulsa Massacre of June 1921, and events which led up to and surrounding it. Part two here and part three here.

In June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Donald Trump announced an election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma: his first real-world public campaign event since the outbreak of the pandemic, and while infections were still running very high.

Despite the Trump campaign’s embarrassing failure to come anywhere near filling the venue, the rally did result in a spike, with new cases in Oklahoma more than tripling in the month afterwards.

Trump’s choice of Tulsa had deep and extremely sinister historical significance.

The US President scheduled his event – which he would use to attack the BLM protests and defend monuments honouring leaders of the Civil War Confederacy – to clash with events for “Juneteenth”, the 19 June holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans at the end of the war in 1865. (A week before the rally he moved it back one day.) He surely chose Tulsa because of a more recent episode in the history of American racism.

A hundred years ago – in the days from 31 May 1921 – the city was the site of a bloody orgy of murder and destruction against its black population, backed up by the power of state and local government.

At the height of the pogrom Greenwood, the main centre of Tulsa’s black population, was subject to aerial bombardment (picture above from after the massacre). Probably between 200 and 300 people were killed and approaching 1,000 injured. 10,000 were made homeless, many for a long time. And one of the richest black communities in the US, famous around the country, was smashed, with effects still felt today. This horrific story was first openly celebrated by the white racists who dominated Oklahoma, and then suppressed for half a century.

Tulsa was one of a series of mass killings of black people in the US which erupted at the end of the First World War. The counter-revolution against the revolutionary black liberation struggle which took place during and after the Civil War began in the 1860s, triumphed in the late 1870s and deepened in the 1890s. As Tulsa showed, in many ways it did not reach its worst point until the 1920s. Yet in those depths there was important resistance.

Black Oklahoma

Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907 (the 46th of 50 to formally join the US). Before that it was designated as “Indian Territory”, a place for Native Americans driven from their ancestral lands. During the Civil War the territory was dominated by the Confederacy, but in the area of Tulsa there was a struggle pitting white and Native American slave-owners against African Americans and Native Americans who supported the Union.

In the 1870s, as railways and capitalist development came to Oklahoma, resistance by African Americans and Native Americans to the railroad companies’ incursions on their lands was violently suppressed.

Attempts to create a Native-dominated state were seen off; western Oklahoma was separated from the Indian Territory and opened to white settlers from 1888; and then attempts to create a separate state of Sequoyah in the East were also blocked. The “compromise” was the 1907 admission of the whole of Oklahoma as a single white-dominated state.

In addition to the Indian Territory slaves liberated in 1866 (later than in the US and its other territories), tens of thousands of African Americans settled in Oklahoma between the Civil War and statehood, by 1907 accounting for 10% of the population of 1.5 million. They established 27 all-black towns, with thousands of farms, businesses, schools, churches, newspapers and other institutions.

There was campaigning among black people in the US South to encourage migration to Oklahoma, presenting it as a “promised land” of opportunity for blacks; and indeed African Americans in the territory did mostly live a richer and freer life than their counterparts in the US proper, South or North.

But as the white population grew and statehood approached, there was a drive to implement “Jim Crow” segregation as elsewhere in the South. A key organiser in this effort was William Murray, the first speaker of the state’s House of Representatives in 1907-9. Murray would become Oklahoma’s governor 1930-4, continuing to attack black rights and, amid social unrest, establishing ecords for the number of times he used the National Guard (47) and declared martial law (30). He became an admirer of Hitler.

Although the white Oklahoma state-builders were pushed by the US government to retreat from adopting an openly segregationist constitution, they quickly found ways to disenfranchise and legally discriminate against African Americans.

Legal changes were backed up by racist terror, both state-implemented and unofficial but state-backed. By 1911 more blacks were hanged in the state than whites, even though the latter made up over 80% of the population. Lynchings became common. Black people were driven out of some areas of the state; there were attempts to prevent further black immigration.

Rise and repression of the left in Oklahoma

In the same period Oklahoma had a fast growing, astonishingly strong left and labour movement, which generally crossed racial lines and resisted racism. This left also suffered brutal repression, an essential part of the context for what was happening by the 1920s.

In the last decades of the 19th century the territory became a stronghold of the broadly left-wing Populist movement and, from the turn of the century, of the Socialist Party. In 1915 there were more Socialist Party members in the state than in New York, which had seven times Oklahoma’s population; the state party had about 12,000 members in 800 branches. It also had 175 elected officials. In the 1912 presidential election Socialist candidate Eugene Debs received 6% of the vote nationally, but 16.5% in Oklahoma, the highest of any state. In the 1914 election for state governor the party won 21%.

As elsewhere – but not everywhere – the Socialist Party in Oklahoma involved African Americans and actively fought against racism. Historian Jim Bissett argues that the SP was “the most hospitable political institution for black Oklahomans in the early twentieth century”. It led mass opposition to the 1910 constitutional amendment by which the new state effectively disenfranchised large numbers of black voters. As a result it won over many prominent black activists.

A crucial part of the Socialist Party's base in the state was poor farmers.

Around the start of the First World War rural Oklahoma simmered with hostilities between the “Working Class Union” (WCU), a mass, radical, multi-racial tenant farmers’ organisation inspired by the Industrial Workers of the World but frustrated by the IWW’s refusal to organise among farmers, and conservative and racist forces.

American’s entry to the war in 1917 was a turning point, with growing threats of violence against left activists in Oklahoma.

In August 1917 black, white (US-born and immigrant) and Native American WCU activists attempted an armed uprising against the introduction of conscription - the “Green Corn Rebellion”. Quickly fizzling out, it became an excuse for massive repression against the whole of the state’s left, including the IWW and the Socialist Party.

Between the 1916 and 1920 presidential elections, the SP’s national vote share increased slightly, but in Oklahoma it fell by two thirds. The party's state leadership formally disbanded the organisation; although this was contested, the party had virtually disappeared by 1921.

Tulsa was a new city, whose population grew by over 5,000% between 1900 and 1920 as it became the centre of an oil boom.

The new millionaire barons of the oil industry embraced established right-wing traditions, relying on violent white supremacist groups to drive union organisers out of Tulsa, or murder them. The same year as the Green Corn Rebellion, twelve IWW organisers in the city were tarred and feathered, with the anti-union drive clearly linked to patriotic pro-war agitation.

1919: “Red summer”, red scare

The wider political and social climate in the US as the war ended was violently racist and counter-revolutionary.

In 1919 the UK experienced an organised wave of racist assaults against BME and migrant workers, mainly seafarers, in seaport cities. It was driven partly by activists and leaders of the main seamen's union, and we should learn more today about this shameful part of our history.

But it pales in comparison to the US’s “Red Summer” the same year, which saw hundreds of killings of black people by white “rioters”, in many parts of the country, North and South, with thousands injured and made homeless. In addition to more “ordinary” killings, at least 43 were lynched, with eight burned at the stake.

The context was both rising white racism and a growing black self-assertion which enraged the racists. In 1915 the Ku Klux Klan was refounded, an explicit successor of the white supremacist terrorist organisation which helped overthrow multi-racial governments in the South in the decade after the Civil War. Klan membership soared. By its peak in the mid-20s there would be four million members, 15% of the “eligible” total of White Protestant Americans (the organisation hated Jews, Catholics and migrants from parts of Europe as well as well as non-white people).

Activists in Tulsa’s already flourishing white supremacist ecosystem founded the Tulsa KKK six months after the 1921 massacre.

Something like four hundred thousand black men had fought for the US in the World War (in segregated units). Many came home in no mood to put up with the same old shit, particularly after the US government’s rhetoric about “democracy” and “self-determination”, and some kept hold of their guns. Despite most white racists’ support for the US war effort, and the imperialist, racist goals and politics underlying it, the sight of uniformed black veterans was a driver of racist outrage.

The war saw an acceleration of black migration from the South to urban areas in the North, the start of what would come to be called the Great Migration. Many black people entered industrial jobs. A fast growing Northern and industrial black population provided both a stronger basis for black self-confidence and self-assertion and, given the strength of white racism, another flag and target for racists.

Unlike the IWW, the mainstream American unions of the American Federation of Labor for the most part excluded black workers. Unsurprisingly, in the context of rising industrial militancy, some capitalists sometimes attempted to use black workers, generally worse off and excluded from the unions, as strike-breakers.

The multi-layered betrayal of the black working class by the white-dominated labour movement and many white workers was a disgrace to the principles of solidarity, and led to defeat for the whole class. The defeat of the 1919-20 four-month national steel strike, which resulted in the virtual disappearance of unions from the industry for fifteen years, was due in no small part to racial divisions among the workers.

In the 1920s many steel towns became centres of the surging KKK – even though the Klan was aggressively and explicitly anti-labour-movement.

Although black workers were also sometimes stereotyped as strike-breakers, the racist political climate and agitation surrounding and fuelling the violence of 1919 very often linked black people, labour militancy and socialism.

One version of the idea was that black resistance to racism and oppression was a result of socialists and anarchists stirring up ignorant and simple-minded people who would otherwise be quite content. In July 1919 the New York Times carried a headline “Reds try to stir negroes to revolt”.

The administration of racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) – which had segregated federal government departments and purged black civil servants – did nothing to stop the 1919 violence, which it also blamed on black trouble-makers and white radicals stirring them up. It carried out heavy repression against the left, including by deporting almost 600 foreign-born socialists and anarchists. Although the victims were overwhelmingly white, more than half the report which led to the deportations covered radicalisation in US black communities.

It actually was true that growing numbers of black Americans were looking or beginning to look to the radical left. As in many European colonies, the Russian revolution, with its mass struggles against national and racial oppression as well as for workers’ power, became a point of reference and attraction for many black activists.

As well as the attacks on black people, this period saw aggressive, often violent repression against the labour movement by state forces and paramilitaries, with many activists killed, sometimes through the equivalent of lynchings. For speaking out against US involvement in the war, Debs was arrested in 1918 and sentenced to ten years in prison.

In 1919, most of the Red Summer’s major incidents took place in cities. But the most deadly occurred in a rural area, the farming community of Elaine, Arkansas, from the end of September, after black sharecroppers defended their union meetings against disruption. Perhaps 200 black people were killed by vigilantes, in this case not just ignored by actively aided by federal troops. The state governor appointed a committee of white businessmen to “investigate”; they declared that the sharecroppers’ union was a socialist conspiracy “for the purpose of… the killing of white people”.

No white people were prosecuted but 79 black people were, all convicted by all-white juries in a courthouse surrounded by armed white militia, following confessions extracted by torture.

Faced by the mounting horrors of 1919, many black Americans fought back heroically. I will look further at that resistance, and its connections to the socialist struggles of the time, in another article. The next article will tell the story of the 1921 Tulsa massacre itself – in which black people also resisted, against impossible odds.

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