Particularly given who the last US President was, it’s not insignificant that Joe Biden has spoken out very publicly about June 1921, when a racist mob destroyed the black district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by burning and bombing from the air, and killed hundreds. We told the story in Solidarity 595 and 596.
“This was not a riot”, Biden told a crowd of survivors and their families in Tulsa on 1 June, the anniversary of the bloodshed’s climax. “This was a massacre.” He condemned the effective cover up of the slaughter for many years, the veiling of what had happened in “silence” and “darkness”. He highlighted his government’s policies for addressing racial inequality, both economic (e.g. increased public spending) and political (e.g. voting rights).
Biden’s politics represent a relief both from the Trump regime and to some extent his own past. Yet he is far from presenting an adequate explanation of what happened in Tulsa in 1921 or fighting for changes which can provide substantial justice for its victims and their descendants.
After the massacre
In the Tulsa massacre probably several hundred were killed, a thousand injured, ten thousand made homeless. Greenwood's flourishing commercial centre (the “Black Wall Street”) and other areas were burned to the ground. Two hundred businesses, a school, several churches and Greenwood’s only hospital, as well as over a thousand homes, were burned down.
Two days afterwards, on 3 June 1921, white business and local government leaders in Tulsa met to discuss “rebuilding”; but over the winter of 1921-22, thousands of black families continued to live in tents. The authorities acted slowly and in ways that hindered help.
TheTulsa Tribune, which had essentially incited the massacre, summed up the view of many of Tulsa’s white leaders with an editorial headlined “It must not be again”, arguing that “such a district as the old ‘N-----town’ must never be allowed in Tulsa again”.
One of Tulsa’s most prominent real-estate capitalists argued for using industrial development in the area to “draw more distinctive lines between [the different sections of Tulsa] and thereby eliminate the intermingling of the lower elements of the two races… the root of all evil which should not exist”.
A group of white industrialists and property developers got the city to agree new fire rules that, by making building prohibitively expensive, would prevent many black people from rebuilding homes and businesses in Greenwood. That was blocked through the courts, but the goal of using chunks of Greenwood land for white-run industrial purposes was achieved through other means.
There were arguments in the black community about how to respond. Some black businessmen and community leaders cooperated actively with the white resource-grabbers. Many Greenwood people resisted, organising around the slogan “I’m going to hold what I have until I get what I’ve lost”. As in the massacre itself, they were fighting heroically against the odds.
Some who had participated in the attack occupied prominent positions in the city’s government, courts and other arenas of authority. Every single one of the claims filed with the city for compensation, totalling $1.8m (over $25m today), was turned down — except one by a white pawnshop-owner. Many insurance companies also refused to pay out.
Greenwood was rebuilt, but with tightened limits on the partially independent black wealth and power that had been the invaders’ target. Research published by Harvard University last year concluded that the massacre was directly responsible for reducing black incomes in Tulsa by 7.3% by 1940, along with declines in occupational status, home ownership and educational attainment; and that it had an impact on black people in the rest of Oklahoma too.
The cover up
No white people were charged for the killing, violence and destruction. In the first period after the massacre some white Tulsans boasted about it, with celebratory postcards featuring scenes from the destruction of Greenwood sold on the street.
A few days afterwards, President Warren Harding gave a speech attacking the massacre — but doing anything was another matter. (The next year he supported a federal anti-lynching bill but then helped engineer its withdrawal in the Senate.) Many newspapers covered the destruction at the time, in Tulsa and more widely, including the New York Times and the Times here. In 1922 a black journalist who survived the massacre, Mary E Jones Parrish, published a book with accounts, photographs and a roster of deaths and property losses. The Red Cross and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People published reports.
Historian of the massacre Scott Ellsworth comments that what happened in June 1921 was initially “a big story”, but: “The businessmen, the political types and whatnot all realise[d] fairly quickly that they had a huge PR problem with the massacre”. The result was a soon-established norm of refusing to even mention it had happened. It was not just historical silence in some general sense, as Biden suggests, but a cover up by the local (white) capitalist establishment. They had aided, refused to punish and benefited from the massacre, with complicity from the wider ruling class.
In the 1970s, after the growth of civil rights and Black Power struggles, Oklahoma activists and historians made fresh attempts to bring 1921 to light, but faced stiff resistance and pressure to shut up — not just from outspoken racists, but from the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, for instance.
As late as 2017, a report on the history of the Tulsa Fire Department from 1897 made no mention of the 1921 conflagration! Since 2020 the massacre has been an official part of the Oklahoma school curriculum; but this year the state passed a law limiting discussion of systemic racism in American society and history, so-called “critical race theory”.
Medals or justice?
After decades of campaigning, in 1996 the Oklahoma legislature authorised a Commission to Investigate the Tulsa Race Riot (sic: the name was finally changed to the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission in 2018). The Commission’s report in 2001 recommended as its top priorities direct reparations payments to survivors of the massacre and their descendants. It also advocated a scholarship fund for students affected, establishment of an economic development zone in historic Greenwood, and a memorial for reburial of the victims.
The 118 known survivors still alive in March 2001 were given medals and official events were held. Three months later the Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act (sic) included a public memorial for those killed, measures for economic development in Greenwood and three hundred college scholarships for the descendants of residents. Ignoring the Commission report, it did not include reparations.
In 2003 five survivors sued the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma to demand reparations. The courts dismissed the case on the grounds that in Oklahoma civil rights cases must be filed within two years of the event!
In the run up to the centenary, there have been renewed agitation and campaigning, in Tulsa and beyond. Last year Human Rights Watch released The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument. Their case is based not just on the massacre itself, and the oppression the survivors faced afterwards, but the decades-long chain of events and policies that have determined how “poverty, race and geography correlate” in Tulsa. 33.5 percent of North Tulsans live in poverty, compared to 13.4 percent in South Tulsa. Unemployment among black people in the city in the city is 2.4 times higher than among whites. Yet investment and development measures are concentrated in the South of the city.
While Tulsa’s public services remain desperately underfunded, the city expanded funding for the police in 2020 and has indicated it plans further increases.
When the oldest living survivor of the massacre, 107-year-old Viola Davis, spoke to Congress in May, she described the hard life she has had since her family fled Tulsa in 1921 and said: “All the while the city of Tulsa has unjustly used the names and stories of victims like me to enrich itself and its white allies through the $30m raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission, while I continue to live in poverty.”
Biden’s Tulsa speech was criticised even by moderate racial justice campaigners for failing to advocate reparations, or make proposals for tackling student loan debt and its heavily disproportionate impact on black Americans.
More broadly, an economic program that can seriously impact the issues faced by North Tulsa and many other communities — particularly after the pandemic — requires a mobilisation of resources and redistribution of wealth way beyond the Biden Democrats’ public spending plans.
To win such measures will take militant working-class struggle. The other side of this story liberal narratives largely do not touch, and certainly Biden’s didn’t, is how this period’s anti-black violence was paralleled and intertwined with violence against organised labour and the left.
1919 and after saw widespread vigilante, paramilitary and state violence against both black communities and working-class struggles (in some cases they were the same thing). One trigger for violence was determined racist efforts to drive white and black workers apart.
Oklahoma had had a powerful socialist left, perhaps the strongest in the US, until a few years before the massacre. The suppression of this movement from 1917 destroyed the main space in which white and black (and Native American) Oklahomans organised together politically. It was carried out by the same forces, grassroots far-right activists and their allies in the Tulsa establishment, whose cooperation ramped up the June 1921 events into a massive white-supremacist military action.
The dizzying bloodshed and destruction in Tulsa reflected the violently counter-revolutionary climate of the post-war US — and no doubt reinforced it too. The massacre was the first time a US city was bombed from the air. Three months later, at the start of September 1921, one of the largest workers’ actions in US history, by ten thousand West Virginia miners — white, black and immigrant, fighting for unionisation — was suppressed at Blair Mountain by thousands of police, soldiers and private security. Over a million rounds were fired and the miners were bombed from the air.
(Miners in the region often wore red bandanas as a symbol of solidarity: this was an alternative use of the term “rednecks”. In 2018 teachers taking part in the successful mass strikes which swept West Virginia wore red bandanas in tribute.)
Black Americans did not passively submit to the wave of attacks on them after the World War. Across the US they formed ad hoc self-defence organisations to resist white violence. Thousands of young black veterans of the war, trained in combat and particularly alert to the hypocrisy of white supremacist President Woodrow Wilson’s cant about “democracy” and “self-determination”, were central to this.
As after the Civil War, black men who had fought for the US came home with a determination to see meaningful change — and strong awareness of the contradiction between their role in the war and their communities’ treatment afterwards. Black activists and political theorists hammered home the contrasts. “This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought!”, wrote W E B Du Bois in The Crisis, just after the start of 1919’s “Red Summer” of racist attacks.
Black veterans in uniform became a particular source of outrage and target for violence from white racists, as did blacks working in big industry and black economic success in the form of businesses and housing. Black men in sexual relationships or contact with white women, real or imagined, were also targets.
At the start of the “Red Summer”, black veterans formed armed groups in Washington and Chicago to defend homes and neighbourhoods when the police and government refused to. A group of veterans in Chicago broke into an armoury and took weapons they used to beat back a white mob. These actions inspired similar organising around the country, including in many parts of the South.
In Tulsa two years later young black veterans were central to the groups that mobilised to defend Dick Rowland from lynching and tried to defend Greenwood against the white invaders.
An organisation which was short-lived but is important in socialist and working-class history played a noteworthy role in these struggles.
The African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (usually just African Blood Brotherhood, ABB) was a US black nationalist and pan-Africanist organisation most of whose activists, attracted by the anti-racist and anti-colonialist struggles of the Russian Revolution, evolved politically to revolutionary socialism. They joined the US Communist Party, with the organisation eventually dissolving into it.
The ABB was launched in September 1919 by black-nationalist-going-socialist paper The Crusader. It was pitched as an organisation to help African Americans defend themselves against the kind of racist killings and attacks they had faced during the “Red Summer”. The paper meanwhile focused increasingly on the parallels between the post-war assaults on black people and those on white radicals and labour activists.
For a while the ABB organised a class-struggle socialist opposition in the conferences and rallies of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, advocating black-white working-class unity and attacking Garvey’s autocratic methods and contact with the Ku Klux Klan.
Though at its height the ABB only had a few thousand members, its calls for armed self-defence against the pogromists helped it recruit significant numbers of black veterans. By 1921 it had a branch in Tulsa and seems to have been centrally involved in the black self-defence there.
Certainly afterwards it was widely claimed that the ABB had been central — and the organisation campaigned extensively around what had happenened. The Crusader and ABB agitators cited Tulsa as evidence of why African Americans needed to defend themselves by any means necessary. The ABB organised public meetings in its New York stronghold of Harlem which collected money for the survivors of Tulsa and gave them a platform to tell their stories.
If We Must Die
By Claude McKay
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honour us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Claude McKay was a Jamaican-born writer, poet and activist whose sonnet If We Must Die, first published in US socialist magazine The Liberator, became a sort of anthem for black self-defence during the “Red Summer” of racist violence in 1919. A supporter of the African Blood Brotherhood, McKay went on to work as a socialist journalist in the UK, supported the Communist International and travelled to Bolshevik Russia, and became a central figure in the 1920-30s Harlem Renaissance.