Paper cautious, solitary regarding racial issues
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005
1/20/13 at 8:37 AM
Editor’s note: During the celebration of its first 100 years, the Tulsa World is looking back at the way the newspaper has dealt with key issues. In
recognition of Black History Month, this, the first in the occasional series of stories, looks at the way the newspaper has dealt with racial discrimination and segregation.
For most of its nearly 100 years, the Tulsa
World has approached race-related stories and
issues with caution.
Its news pages reported, usually in a
straightforward manner, the daily indignities
and not-infrequent injustices visited on black
Americans and other ethnic minorities; editorially, it consistently -- if often quietly -- supported voting rights, school desegregation and
an end to racial violence.
"This is the United States of America," the
World said in 1954 after the U.S. Supreme
Court's ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of
Education outlawed segregated public schools.
"This is a nation of laws; it is a
nation of law-abiding people.
There can be no moral doubt of
the rightness of the court's decision. . . ."
At the time, Tulsa's public
schools were segregated, and
the city was deeply divided on
"Let us temper our prejudices;
let us wipe out the scars of the
past and look to the future. Let
us all remain free in our individual pursuit of happiness and the
good life," the editorial said.
Such circumspection is understandable. Thirty-three years earlier, almost to the day of the
Brown decision, loose reporting
and intemperate editorializing by
other Tulsa newspapers contributed to the city's greatest disaster, one that many Tulsans still
remember with horror and clarity: the May 31-June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Riot.
Dozens of people were killed
and hundreds injured in a space
of 14 hours. Destruction and
damage to property totaled millions of dollars. The psychological damage may have been even
greater; for decades, the memory of that night and day lurked
like a bogeyman in the shadows
of the collective subconscious.
A World editorialist, Tom Latta, wrote afterward that the
"German invasion of Belgium
with its awful consequences was
not more unjustified or characterized with any greater cruelty"
than the destruction of the black
Greenwood district. Six weeks
later, Latta wrote that the lack
of progress in rebuilding the
burned area was due to "unwillingness to face courageously
substantial facts" -- namely, that
whatever was being done wasn't
In its early years, before the
riot, the World was more direct
on matters of race. Opposition
to Jim Crow -- the systematic
segregation of blacks from the
rest of the population -- was
one of the newspaper's founding
Started in September 1905 by
a faction of Tulsa Republicans,
the newspaper maintained that
the Jim Crow provisions that
Democrats wanted in the new
state's constitution would never
get past President Theodore
Roosevelt and could delay statehood for years. The World also
knew that blacks tended to vote
Republican, remembering the
GOP still as the party of Lincoln
and identifying Democrats with
The World was not always
successful. Jim Crow was left
out of the state constitution but
soon legislated into law. In 1910,
Oklahomans adopted the controversial "grandfather clause," a
confusingly worded constitutional amendment passed with the
help of a provision that counted
unmarked ballots as "yes" votes.
The grandfather clause allowed poll workers to administer
"literacy" tests to black (but not
white) voters. Its effect is recorded in the World's reports on
Tulsa's 1912 municipal elections.
No effort was made to enforce
the clause during the primary
election, which raised an alarm
from the city's other newspaper,
the Tulsa Democrat.
The Democrat warned that
Tulsa would be taken over by
"negro lovers" and blacks flooding into the city from cities
where the grandfather clause
meant "clean white elections."
The Democrat linked the
World's new managing editor,
Eugene Lorton, to what it called
a sinister cabal that included
J.B. Stradford, a prominent black
lawyer, businessman and civil
In response, the World
shamed the Democrat -- and
Democrats. In an article on a
Democratic campaign rally at a
Greenwood Avenue meeting
hall, the World said that blacks
were "promised the same consideration they were given during the days of slavery."
However, Democrats swept to
victory in the general election
when poll workers enforced the
"One hundred and twenty-three negro voters were kept
from voting in precinct No. 13,
where the democratic election
inspector, J.G. Crawford, made a
few negroes write page after
page of the constitution," the
World reported. "One negro
from 9 o'clock was in the voting
place until 11 o'clock . . . By pursuing this method, a vast
amount of voters, both black
and white, were prevented from
Ku Klux Klan
The World's fight with the Ku
Klux Klan during the 1920s involved broader civil rights issues.
Associated now mostly with
racial intolerance, the Tulsa Klan
of that era also targeted Catholics, Jews, dope dealers, bootleggers, wife-beaters, adulterers and
immigrants. The World reported
that the Klan blacklisted -- and
in some cases, ruined -- merchants deemed less than "100
percent American" or who
spurned the organization.
This apparently included the
World. It claimed that the Klan
put pressure on advertisers and
subscribers, although circulation
increased during the supposed
The World reported that the
Klan sanctioned or inspired
nearly 100 "whipping parties"
during a two-year period; among
these was the band that kidnapped and beat John Smitherman, a black law officer who
had been urging blacks to register for the 1922 Democratic pri
mary. The assailants cut off his
ear and tried to stuff it down his
During these years, the World
was all but alone in criticizing
the invisible empire. KKK-endorsed candidates had swept the
1922 city and county elections
and claimed all six Tulsa County
legislative seats. The 1923 request by Chamber of Commerce
Chairman H.O. McClure for a
resolution denouncing the Klan
met stony silence.
The floggings and the treatment of prisoners in police custody prompted Gov. J.C. Walton
to declare martial law in Tulsa
in August 1923. By October,
Walton was demanding the ouster of Police Commissioner Harry
Kiskaddon, Tulsa County Sheriff
Bob Sanford and the three-member Tulsa County jury commission.
Walton was removed from office instead. The World, however, kept pounding away. It revealed that a new meeting hall
on North Main Street was
owned by a Ku Klux Klan front,
the Benevolent Association, and
identified the local "exalted cyclops" as W. Shelley Rogers, a
"There is but one great issue
involved," the World declared
before the 1924 city elections.
"Whether Tulsa is to be governed by agencies answerable to
all the people on constitutional
grounds, or whether it is to be a
vassal of this man Shelley Rogers. . . ."
On election night, the Klan-dominated administration was resoundingly returned to office.
Drunken demonstrators carrying
a mock casket paraded outside
the World building, singing and
taunting employees. Near the
entrance someone punched a 15-year-old copy boy in the face
and shoved a Linotype operator's wife against a wall. Another
pulled a gun, went inside and
forced the pressmen into the
basement. Fortunately, hostilities
broke off then.
The World claimed partial victory, saying that at least the
Klan had been flushed into the
open. The city's prominent residents had been forced to declare themselves. Mayor Herman Newblock, whom the
World called the least objectionable of the Klan candidates, had
distanced himself from the no-longer secret society.
"Twelve months ago it was
suicide and sacrilege both to
even mention the klan in a politcal debate," the World said. "Yet
today we hear the subject debated openly and earnestly. . . ."
The Klan's influence faded,
but not its dogma of segregation
and discrimination. Not until after World War II did the long
thaw begin. The World continued to identify non-whites by
race until the early 1960s. As
late as 1964 restaurants and other businesses in Oklahoma
could still legally refuse service
on the basis of race. Not until
1983 was Tulsa Public Schools
released from a federal desegregation order. In 2004 details
were finally worked out in the
settlement of a discrimination
lawsuit by black police officers
against the city.
But Tulsa also survived the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s
without the amount of violence
that erupted in many other U.S.
cities during those years -- and
in Tulsa in 1921. In 2004 two
black men were Tulsa city councilors and another was a Tulsa
County commissioner. Bishop
Desmond Tutu spoke to a large,
racially mixed audience at the
University of Tulsa.
The World reported all of
these developments, usually in a
straight-forward manner. Some
thought it did not go far enough
in explaining and understanding
race relations. Some thought it
went too far.
A 1955 World editorial said,
"The segregation idea has been
built up for centuries and, manifestly, it cannot be terminated
by one decision.
"It may take from three
months to 10 years to bring on
the readjustment and 10 years
would be a relatively short time,
considering the fact that rigid
lines were drawn two centuries
or more ago. . . ."
Randy Krehbiel 581-8365
Editor’s note: During thecelebration of its first 100years, the Tulsa World islooking back at the waythe newspaper has dealtwith key issues. Inrecognition of Black HistoryMonth, this, the first in theoccasional series of stories,looks at the way thenewspaper has dealt withracial discrimination andsegregation.