Ken Neal: The riot act
BY Ken Neal
Apr 9, 2000
1/20/13 at 8:46 AM
1921 tragedy hurts even today
The Oklahoma Legislature had little choice but to extend the life of the
task force it named last session to investigate the Tulsa race riot of 1921.
Continuing the investigation is not popular with many Tulsans who believe the probe
only unleashes the same passions that caused the fight in 1921. They further contend
that the Tulsa World's extensive coverage of the background and context of the riot
unnecessarily stirs racial hatreds and passions among present-day Tulsans.
It doesn't help matters that some black leaders have used the national attention that
the riot investigation has brought to make outlandish, unsupportable claims about the
actions of white citizens and local government officials during the riot.
It is embarrassing to anyone in the news business to see how one-sided the national
coverage of the investigation has been. From the New York Times to the television
networks, to the news magazines and even to The Economist, a usually well-researched
British magazine, the mythology of the riot was simply too juicy to ignore.
As the grizzled old reporter said in the movie, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,"
when the facts conflict with the legend, print the legend.
So the fatality estimates of 300 or more were accepted as gospel, because that made
the Tulsa riot the deadliest in history. Claims of bombing from the air, National
gunning of black citizens, blacks stacked in mass graves were published as fact with
little or no attribution.
The Economist writer, having been recently bathed in stories of "ethnic cleansing"
in Europe, decided that it happened in Tulsa in 1921. The thread that has run through
much of the coverage nationally is that white Tulsans, with premeditation, set out to
kill black people and burn down the black section out of jealousy of the successes of
And while the language of racist and inflammatory editorials in the afternoon
newspaper of 1921 have been endlessly reported, Tulsa World editorials that appeared
immediately after the riot scarcely have been mentioned. The first editorial asked the
world to forgive Tulsa for what had happened; the second called for restitution and
rebuilding of the black section of the city.
None of the more inflammatory claims has been substantiated. The evidence uncovered
so far, exhumed largely from newspaper and public records available to anyone, is that
fighting broke out when a group of armed black men showed up at the Tulsa County
Courthouse determined to prevent a black man from being lynched by a white mob.
There is little doubt that the hotheads on the white side were joined by racists,
or that the public mores of the day were racist. Or that a white mob -- once unleashed
-- carried out systematic burning, looting and killing and mistreatment of blacks.
The task force was formed largely because many people to this day believe that the
white community plotted and carried out the riot and then tried to cover it up,
downplaying the death toll and property loss.
This is an understandable view for black people who can remember the slights and
insults of a segregated society. But newspaper coverage at the time pretty well
disproves the cover-
up theory. The Tulsa World alone ran three extra editions and kept the riot on page
one for days. Still, the city did not exactly celebrate the riot every year. As the
years wore on and America -- and Tulsa -- began to face the horrible institution of
segregation and second-class treatment of black citizens, the riot became a shameful
thing to most Tulsans, something no
one wanted to commemorate. But contrary to claims, it was mentioned in many history
Whatever the task force ultimately reports, the blot on Tulsa's conscience cannot
be erased. Whether 60 or 300 fatalities, whether fired by kerosene and torches or by
bombs dropped from the air, the riot of 1921 was a despicable event that cannot -- and
should not -- be forgotten.
So the riot commission will continue its work. Much of the research has been done.
Testimony, most of it from the few surviving Tulsans who were children at the time,
has been taken. Not much that was not already known has been developed.
The real work, however, lies ahead. Zealots anxious to punish present-day Tulsans
for the sins of the past have grabbed headlines by demanding $35 million in
reparations. The commission avoided serious discussion of the issue because it was at
the time premature.
The race riot will continue to be in the news. Tulsa World reporters will continue
to bring to life for readers the history of a hateful time in U.S. race relations, a
time when lynchings of black citizens were common throughout the South.
There is good reason for detailed coverage. An accurate, full account is important.
Myths and exaggerations need to be exposed. Speculation should be based on fact.
It is too much to expect that agreement on the facts will be reached. But the work
of this commission and the coverage of it should be so complete that no future
generation can claim cover-up.
The final report of the commission -- and the voluminous coverage by the Tulsa World
-- should go a long way toward putting the riot controversy to rest. This does not mean
that the date should not be remembered; it does not mean that there should not be
monuments and memorials; it does not mean that public money should not be dedicated to
this purpose or for other worthy continuing causes to mark the riot.
Is there anyone in Tulsa -- black or white -- who does not condemn the events of May
June 1 1921? Is there anyone who does not realize that the riot was the result of the
meanness of racial bigotry?
Surely not. Then let the conclusion of this riot investigation be the vehicle for
reconciliation. Let it be used to reach back across the years to wipe out the hate and
venom of that day with confession, forgiveness and tolerance.
Let June 1921 be faced. Let it be memorialized. But let it end.
Ken Neal is editor of the Tulsa World editorial pages.