So. I watched the CNN documentary on the Tulsa race massacre of May 31, 1921. It was a horrific display of white supremacy and sadistic cruelty, with a mob of white people descending on a section of town known as Black Wall Street. The Greenwood section of Tulsa was “across the railroad tracks” from the white section of town, and to some extent they lived as separate and segregated communities for many years. The history of the Tulsa massacre is generally not taught in schools, and many people in 2021 have never heard of it before now.

I suppose some of what I believed about this massacre was that people had been mostly getting along there before the massacre. It didn’t occur to me that such an incredible amount of rage and hatred didn’t brew overnight. Greenwood had been known as “Black Wall Street” because the Black community was doing very well. There was economic empowerment, and many residents were prosperous. What has come out in my later exploration of Greenwood, however, is the grudging envy that white Tulsa had for Black Tulsa. Racism was still alive and well in Tulsa, and it seems that everyone was not happy for the success of Greenwood residents.

The trend of riots and massacres in this country seems to follow that trend of envy, and resentment that segregation has not defeated the Black community. Tulsa was a powder keg, and every day that passed was another step closer to the detonation. The same was true for Wilmington NC, where Blacks were prospering and living very well. That is not the goal of segregation, it seems, nor of extreme racial inequity. In Tulsa, Black businesses were succeeding despite inequitable allocation of infrastructure and structural resources. This had not gone unnoticed by white Tulsa.

I knew about Tulsa’s massacre, but I didn’t learn it in school. In the process of becoming self-educated about the history of racial inequity and racially motivated violence in the nation’s history, I became familiar with the story. There was a lot I didn’t know, however. I didn’t know there was an air attack in the process of the massacre, with airplanes that dropped charges on the civilian neighborhood. Not sure I missed that in all my reading, but I did, and it shocked me. How did people have anything close to a fair chance to escape the carnage that had descended on them, with no warning?

The massacre was a testimony to the principles of organizing, as thousands of residents on the white side of town got the word that an attack was planned. There was a hyped-up story accusing a Black man of attacking a white girl in a department store elevator. By the time the story made it out to the streets, it was an attempted rape. The more accurate version of the story was that a Black man had gone to the store because the only “colored” restroom nearby was on the fourth floor of that building. So, he did what people do and pressed the button for the elevator.

It was a manual elevator back in those days, and the operator was a young white woman. When the man boarded the car, he stumbled, because the elevator and the floor were not level, and fell forward. As he tried to break his fall, he touched the operator, which caused her to recoil in fear and abruptly jerk backward. Because the man was still off balance, he had grasped the shoulder of her uniform jacket, and when she jerked backward, it tore. She screamed, and the passenger, realizing the kind of trouble he could be in, fled the elevator and the store. A sales clerk heard the scream and saw the man running out, and the story began to grow from there until it had little resemblance to truth but inflamed the white community into a firestorm.

A brief aside – there is a rumor that a friendship between the elevator operator and the passenger in question had already been established. They were known to each other, so who knows what happened in that elevator. Perhaps she screamed only because she though he was going to be hurt, perhaps she screamed because someone else witnessed them being friendly to one another. Whatever it was, it was not apparent nor likely that a Black man was attempting to rape a white woman in a public place.

When the mob arrived at the Greenwood part of town, they came upon a peaceful series of Black businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, medical offices, artisan studios, and residences. People took great pride in their properties, and the community there was close knit. There were Black doctors, bakeries, beauty salons. The neighborhood was the social center of the community, and it was a safe harbor to escape the racism and intolerance experienced in the rest of Tulsa. They had no idea all that would come to a brutal end within sixteen hours.

Aside from aerial attack, the mob shot people outright, because every rioter was armed. They had come with the intent to kill, and because they had the element of surprise, there was little resistance. Residents were shot in the street, in their homes, in businesses. A respected Black surgeon was shot point blank on his porch, as he attempted to surrender. Men, women, children were killed. The only thing of importance in target selection was the color of their skin. The death toll was in the hundred, and would have been higher had some people not been able to escape.

After shooting as many people as they could, the mob set fire to every structure. Homes, shops, businesses, store were all reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. Some of the homes were set afire while residents were still hiding inside. The photographs showing the aftermath looked much like photos of a town destroyed by a tornado. Flat, debris everywhere, and nothing left above street level. Everything these people had worked for, and built, was destroyed. The survivors were literally shell-shocked, but grateful to be alive.

Now here’s where it gets worse, if that can even be imagined. Following the massacre, Tulsa officials took steps to dispose of the hundreds of dead bodies as fast as humanly possible. Bodies were stacked like wood on flatbed carts and trucks pressed into service, and some were simply tossed into the deepest part of the river. Others were buried in mass graves in the town cemetery. Others simply disappeared. There were no funerals, no closure, no effort to identify the dead. They were clearing the streets and clearing the evidence.

The other incomprehensible after-shock from this massacre was also something I’d never heard before, which involved internment camps. Survivors of the Greenwood massacre were, of course, homeless since everything had been destroyed. In a brilliant flash of innovation, town officials decided to house the former residents of the destroyed area in tents. The first tents were charitable Red Cross tents, but those were replaced by a tent city erected by the local government. To be given a spot there, Black people had to register for an identification card, to be carried at all times. The tent city was formally known as an internment camp. This was 1921, long before the Asian internment camps most of us are familiar with after Pearl Harbor during World War II.

The entire story of this massacre is disturbing, horrible, heartbreaking. There are still three or four survivors of this unbelievable event. They are, of course, over 100 years old, but they still remember every minute of that experience. One, who is 107, addressed congress and told of hearing the screams, the gun shots, smelling the smoke that night. She remembers she and her family running for their lives as they escaped their burning home. She told the Congressional panel that she sees it all, in her mind, every day. She can’t forget, and she said that she hopes America can’t forget.

I hope America can’t forget any of that, either. My sadness and outrage over Tulsa comes from reading historical accounts and watching a documentary, not from direct experience. I hope I never have that kind of direct experience. These days, however, I worry that such horrendous events will be part of my direct experience. Tulsa was not the only race massacre, there were many. Wilmington NC, Colfax LA, Rosewood FL and so many others across the country. Wilmington NC is still the only official coup d’etat in the nation’s history, because the rioters successfully deposed the duly elected mayor and legislature, replacing them with their own supporters, mostly KKK members.

My fear is that mindsets like those prevalent in race massacres are not far away from those I see today in the Q fanaticism, the fanaticism that claims TFG (The Former Guy) will be returned to office shortly. The fanaticism that still contends the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from TFG, and that our current President is illegitimate; there are still recounts of multiply verified ballots planned in more than a couple of states. They refuse to give up this fight.

The same cruelty and depravity of the Tulsa mob was present at the Capitol insurrection, when video of rioters spraying toxic bear spray or other chemicals into the faces of Capitol Police officers. When they smeared their own feces on the walls and floors of the Capitol office area. When they arrived with stacks of plastic zip-ties in hopes of having a reason to use them to restrain captives. January 6th was the same energy as May 31st in 1921, the energy that says something has been taken from a group of people, and they simply refuse to accept it.

I don’t know if there is a solution to these circumstances. We are polarized, and many are reacting – rather than acting – solely in response to emotion. Facts and data do nothing to deter the emotional response, because it is simply too easy to dismiss such annoyances as manipulation by “the enemy”; the enemy is anyone who disagrees. These people claim to be patriots, and claim to be fighting for their country. I could live with that, but they are highly organized and frighteningly united.

Dealing with this degree of unity alternately fascinates and frustrates me. This is not the first time people have united in cult-like fashion around ideology or dogma, and these folks seem to have both. What is frustrating, however, is that people who see the danger in this cannot seem to unite in like fashion. Where is the resistance, I would ask? Why are we still arguing amongst ourselves concerning legislative measures and whether or not the President is doing a good job of running the country. In the case of partisan politics, the GOP is in lock-step behind TFG, while the Democrats are still trying to contain the likes of Joe Manchin, who seems to take maniacal glee in being everyone’s favorite spoiler. the latter group is not going to get anywhere like that.

I have never been someone who agrees 100% with any party or any politician. However, I believe in strategic voting, strategic support, strategic alliance. Because I feel things are fragile right now, due to the presence of this radical right-wing activist element, I cannot understand how those who identify as resistance to that effort cannot get themselves together. There is no winning strategy in that; there is no strategy at all. This is more frightening than actual riots.

It’s hard for me to look at the U.S. Capitol insurrection and not hear the echoes of riots like Tulsa. If the Capitol insurrectionists could have deposed elected officials, I believe they would have. Some of them were walking down the hallways, calling out for Nancy Pelosi and others, and attempting to gain entrance to congressional offices. As we saw in news reports after the breach of the Capitol, some rioters did enter the offices of leaders, one taking pictures of himself with his feet on a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Others were content to appropriate government artifacts from the floor of the House and Senate, almost comically walking off with a speaker’s podium.

As insane as this overkill was, it was still a breach of the nation’s capitol and still a grave threat to our democracy. The intent of that riot wasn’t so much to kill Black people, but the crowd was indeed a mostly white mob set on disrupting government. I believe the roots of that demographic was anti-Black and anti-people of color, definitely anti-Semitic and homophobic, because so much of the rhetoric surrounding their movement coalesces around race.

I was having a conversation along these lines with someone earlier, who is a bit more radical than I, and her leaning at this point is that we need drastic action. She said love is not enough to do any of this – Black people were not enslaved with love, wars are not fought with love. I had to sit back and take that in, because what’s happening now is not working. I’m not a fan of violent resistance, but we are seeing a race riot in slow motion, nearly every day, just one at a time at the hands of law enforcement.

For me, something needs to work. I do not enjoy not knowing, but what I do know is exactly what my friend said is true: this is not working. I don’t want to be 107 and explaining to people what I saw and can’t un-see and how awful it was. That’s not the vision I want to have right now.

This can never happen again. Never.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

2 thoughts on “Activism

  1. I’m amazed that, that has managed to be hidden so long. It’s a powerful and awful thing.
    It’s no consolation but where memories of what the Holocaust was have helped people to face their hates more here, perhaps this coming out will do the same in the US. It’s not a perfect thing and somehow we still manage to find a way to be blind that so many hates are the same no matter who they’re at ( so being anti nazism doesn’t stop people still beating wives etc ) but it’s at least caused people to stop and think a bit before they act.

    I don’t know much but think that drastic action will just fuel the fears of the mob, swelling its ranks against change. I wonder if this is why you’re seeing so much confusion. People searching for the scalpel cut that will work? Hitler didn’t need to fix people’s problems or worry about making things better, he just needed to give people someone to blame for all their ills, someone he could unite everyone against. The same with TFG ( as you call him ).
    But to make a good change it’s not good enough in life just to defeat an army of haters, it has to be a case of defeating the mindset that chooses hate as an easy or profitable option and can see people as faceless foes or disposable assets. That’s a much harder thing and will always put people at a disadvantage but it’s the only one which makes the tomorrow after the next tomorrow brighter.

    Words like ‘It will all be ok’ no doubt sound hollow, just know that many more people can see and care now than did then.


    1. I agree with you about ‘drastic action’. Maybe I need to explore ‘drastic’ a bit more. 🙂 The urgency of youth is constant, and I don’t have it any longer – too old, too tired, seen too many false starts. I struggle with wanting ‘drastic’ vs. doing the little things, working on the more individual scale – one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time. For some folks, though, ain’t nobody got time for that, and for them it’s true – I can only empathize with those who have lost a child to gun violence or an officer’s excessive force. What’s interesting, though, is those are generally not the people urging drastic action – they are the ones chipping away at the stone, and being persistent. I figure we all just need to make everything we do count for something, and not add to the problems.

      Liked by 1 person

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