Ken Neal: Making it right and moving on
BY KEN NEAL World Editorial Writer
May 27, 2001
1/20/13 at 8:43 AM
Bill could help heal 80-year-old race riot wounds
An act passed by the Oklahoma Legislature provides a badly needed chance to put
the hateful events of May 31-June 1, 1921, into the past where they belong.
The pitched battle between blacks and whites has been remembered as a "race riot,"
but it was much more than that. There was little rioting, but plenty of killing and
burning, mostly of blacks and blacks' property at the hands of a white mob.
Even that does not tell the full story. The confrontation, and the ultimate
decision by whites to "clean out" the black ghetto that existed in 1921, must be
placed in the context of the times -- and the times were especially bad.
It was a period in which Jim Crow laws were on the books. It was a period in which
blacks were routinely abused; when the average white person considered blacks to be
inferior; when all kinds of indignities and degradations were heaped upon black
The final report of a commission formed to investigate the events of 1921 more or
less says that such barbarism could not have erupted without a climate of legalized
hate. The climate was at least partially created by the legal facade that pretended it
was proper to discriminate against blacks.
It is true that some of the language of the task force and the resulting bill
awaiting Gov. Frank Keating's signature is a bit extreme. It is a subjective matter as
to whether Tulsans entered into a "conspiracy of silence" in the years following the
riot or whether the community was simply embarrassed into silence.
It will have been 80 years Thursday since the riot. Whether there was a "conspiracy
of silence" afterward, as the legislation alleges, is debatable. More likely there was
a "culture" of silence as author Scott Ellsworth says in his book, "Death in the
What is not debatable is that the work of the task force has compelled Tulsans to
revisit the horror of the riot in some detail.
Although the task force ostensibly was formed to determine the events of the 1921
racial battle, it in fact considered the slights that white people have thrust on
blacks for decades.
Black people who remember the days when they
were confined to the northside ghetto, and when discrimination was the rule, quite
naturally are resentful; they certainly have been denied a fair shot at the American
Against this context, the "investigation" of the killing and burning in the
Greenwood section is far more than simply ascertaining the events of May 31-June 1,
1921. It is more of a venting of decades, if not centuries, of injustice done to black
The act would establish a memorial to the 1921 confrontation; set up provisions to
redevelop the traditionally black area, and establish college scholarships for poor
students, usually black students. All are moves that will not only help to advance
race relations, but will be good for the city and society as a whole.
The exact amount of money to be spent for these activities still lies with the
Legislature, but in an economically disadvantaged state such as Oklahoma,
the sum is not likely to be extravagant.
More important is the gesture. It is natural that black citizens want an admission
that they have been ill-treated, not only in 1921, but in the years since.
The first reaction of white people today is to distance themselves from the killing
and the burning of 1921, because it is perfectly obvious that very few people who
participated are alive today.
Still, who can deny that the white toughs who killed, burned, and looted did so
confident that they were immune from prosecution? Given the tenor of the times, no
white man was going to be held responsible for killing black citizens.
Sober reflection tells us that there is a larger responsibility than simple
absolution from the events of 1921. The majority of us who are white have at the very
least benefited from a lack of discrimination. Most would argue that had they been
adults in 1921,
they would not have participated in the sacking of Greenwood.
Yet this is a later and hopefully more sophisticated time and it is impossible to
project oneself into the mores and times of 1921; so we don't really know how we would
We only know that there were white people -- and some blacks -- who behaved horribly
in 1921 and that white society in general has discriminated against people of color.
It is against that backdrop that the riot of 1921 must be considered.
That calls for understanding from white people and forgiveness and moderation from
Without both, we are doomed to symbolically repeat the confrontation of 1921 over
and over again.
Ken Neal is editor of the Tulsa World editorial pages.