Joe Biden decries horrific Tulsa massacre in a emotional speech

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Joe Biden decries horrific Tulsa massacre in a emotional speech

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An emotional President Joe Biden marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre that destroyed a thriving Black community in Tulsa

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An emotional President Joe Biden marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre that destroyed a thriving Black community in Tulsa, declaring Tuesday that he had “come to fill the silence” about one of the nation’s darkest — and long suppressed — moments of racial violence.

“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try,” Biden said. “Only with truth can come healing.”

Biden’s commemoration of the deaths of hundreds of Black people killed by a white mob a century ago came amid the current national reckoning on racial justice.

Joe Biden decries 'horrific' Tulsa massacre in emotional speech

“Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place,” Biden said. He said “hell was unleashed, literal hell was unleashed.” And now, he said, the nation must come to grips with the subsequent sin of denial.

“We can’t just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know,” said Biden. “I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence wounds deepen.”

After Biden left, some audience members spontaneously sang a famous civil rights march song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

The events Tuesday stood in stark contrast to then-President Donald Trump’s trip to Tulsa last June, which was greeted by protests. Or the former president’s decision, one year ago, to clear Lafayette Square near the White House of demonstrators who gathered to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

In 1921 — on May 31 and June 1 — a white mob, including some people hastily deputized by authorities, looted and burned Tulsa’s Greenwood district, which was referred to as Black Wall Street.

As many as 300 Black Tulsans were killed, and thousands of survivors were forced for a time into internment camps overseen by the National Guard. Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that survive today of the more than 30-block historically Black district.

On Tuesday, the president, joined by top Black advisers, met privately with three surviving members of the Greenwood community who lived through the violence, the White House said. Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle are all between the ages of 101 and 107.

Biden said their experience had been “a story seen in the mirror dimly.”

“But no longer,” the president told the survivors. “Now your story will be known in full view.”

Outside, Latasha Sanders, 33, of Tulsa, brought her five children and a nephew in hopes of spotting Biden.

“It’s been 100 years, and this is the first we’ve heard from any U.S. president,” she said. “I brought my kids here today just so they could be a part of history and not just hear about it, and so they can teach generations to come.”

John Ondiek, another Tulsan in the crowd following Biden’s speech on cellphones, said he was encouraged that “There aren’t just Black people here. That tells me there’s an awakening going on in this country.”

Several hundred people milled around Greenwood Avenue in front of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church awaiting Biden’s arrival at the nearby Greenwood Cultural Center. Some vendors were selling memorabilia, including Black Lives Matter hats, shirts and flags under a bridge of the interstate that cuts through the district.

The names and pictures of Black men killed by police, including Eric Harris and Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, hung on a chain-link fence next to the church.

Biden briefly toured an exhibit at the center, at times stepping closer to peer at framed historic photographs, before he was escorted into a private meeting with the three survivors.

America’s continuing struggle over race will continue to test Biden, whose presidency would have been impossible without overwhelming support from Black voters, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election.

He announced Tuesday that he was appointing Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts on voting rights as the GOP carries out efforts to pass laws restricting access to the ballot. Republicans portray such legislation as aimed at preventing fraudulent voting, but many critics believe it is designed to limit the voting of minorities.

Biden has pledged to help combat racism in policing and other areas following nationwide protests after Floyd’s death a year ago that reignited a national conversation about race.

Biden called on Congress to act swiftly to address policing reform. But he has also long projected himself as an ally of police, who are struggling with criticism about long-used tactics and training methods and difficulties in recruitment.

The Tulsa massacre has only recently entered the national discourse — and the presidential visit put an even brighter spotlight on the event.

Biden, who was joined by Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge and senior advisers Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond, also announced new measures he said could help narrow the wealth gap between races and reinvest in underserved communities by expanding access to homeownership and small-business ownership.

Full Coverage: Tulsa Race Massacre

The White House said the administration will take steps to address disparities that result in Black-owned homes being appraised at tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable homes owned by white residents as well as issue new federal rules to fight housing discrimination. The administration is also setting a goal of increasing the share of federal contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses by 50% by 2026, funneling an estimated additional $100 billion to such businesses over the five-year period, according to the White House.

Historians say the massacre in Tulsa began after a local newspaper drummed up a furor over a Black man accused of stepping on a white girl’s foot. When Black Tulsans showed up with guns to prevent the man’s lynching, white residents responded with overwhelming force.

Reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved and for other racial discrimination have been debated in the U.S. since slavery ended in 1865. Now they are being discussed by colleges and universities with ties to slavery and by local governments looking to make cash payments to Black residents.

Biden, who was vice president to the nation’s first Black president and who chose a Black woman as his own vice president, backs a study of reparations, both in Tulsa and more broadly, but has not committed to supporting payments.

Trump visited Tulsa last year under vastly different circumstances.

After suspending his campaign rallies because of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump, a Republican, chose Tulsa as the place to mark his return. But his decision to schedule the rally on June 19, the holiday known as Juneteenth that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, was met with such fierce criticism that he postponed the event by a day. The rally was still marked by protests outside and empty seats inside an arena downtown.

Joe Biden calls for US to confront its past on 100th anniversary of Tulsa massacre

Joe Biden has used the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre as a rallying cry for America to be honest about its history, insisting that great nations “come to terms with their dark sides”.

On Tuesday Biden became the first sitting US president to visit the site where, on 31 May and 1 June 1921, a white mob murdered up to 300 African Americans and burned and looted homes and businesses, razing a prosperous community known as “Black Wall Street”.

In an emotional speech punctuated by intense applause, Biden pleaded for America to confront its past and admit that a thread of hatred runs from Tulsa through more recent displays of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the US Capitol in Washington on 6 January.

He also drew a connection to a Republican assault on the voting rights of people of colour and announced that Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour to serve as vice-president, would lead the White House effort to resist it.

Biden began by speaking directly to the last three survivors of the massacre, centenarians Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle, who received a standing ovation from an audience of around 200 made up of survivors and their families, community leaders, and elected officials.

“You are the three known remaining survivors of a story seen in the mirror dimly but no longer,” said Biden, a comparatively youthful 78. “Now, your story will be known in full view.”

Knowledge of this violent attempt to suppress Black success in Greenwood, Tulsa, fell victim to a decades-long conspiracy of silence. The atrocity was not taught in schools, even in Tulsa, until the mid-2000s and was expunged from police records. Those who threatened to break to the taboo faced disapproval or death threats. Even many Black residents preferred not to burden their children with the story.

Biden said: “For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent it doesn’t mean that it did not take place and, while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried, no matter how hard people try. So it is here: only with truth can come healing and justice and repair.”

The argument was a striking contrast from his predecessor, Donald Trump, who promoted a heroic vision of American history. On the massacre’s 99th anniversary, Trump had posed with a Bible outside a historic church after security forces teargassed protesters outside the White House. He headed to Tulsa later that month for a campaign rally that breached coronavirus safety guidelines.

After studying an exhibition on this lost “boom town” at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Biden’s message appeared to be the opposite of “Make America great again” – an acknowledgment that America’s history includes slavery and segregation, and that only looking that fully in the face can allow it to move forward.

Challenging the language used to describe the one of the worst chapters in the country’s history of racial violence, the president followed a moment of silence with a pointed statement: “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.” The hush gave way to prolonged applause inside the room.

He went on: “Among the worst in our history. But not the only one and for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory, our collective memory…

“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” he continued. “We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”

The president noted that, while Greenwood’s Black community recovered, it was marginalised again by housing “red lining” and urban renewal projects including highways – a pattern seen in many American cities.

He promised that his administration would address racism at its roots, expanding federal contracting with small, disadvantaged businesses, investing tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood and pursuing new efforts to combat housing discrimination.

Notably, Biden also used the platform to condemn efforts in recent months by Republican state legislators to impose voting restrictions – likely to have a disproportionate impact on people of colour – as a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy”.

Biden said he had asked Harris to lead his administration’s efforts to protect voting rights. “With her leadership and your support, we’re going to overcome again, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work,” he said.

Harris released a statement that noted almost 400 bills have been introduced at the state level since the last presidential election to make it more difficult for some people to vote. “The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” she said. “This is the work of democracy.”

Biden has made numerous policy speeches as president but the convergence of history, racial justice and the audience on Tuesday seemed to strike a particular chord in him. It was the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017 that moved him to end political retirement and run for president again.

“What happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism with the through-line that exists today still,” he said, prompting a cry of assent from the audience. “Just close your eyes and remember what you saw in Charlottesville four years ago on television.”

Biden added that Fletcher, 107, said the 6 January insurrection, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, “broke her heart” and “reminded her of what happened here in Greenwood a hundred years ago”. He noted that hate crimes continue to target Asian Americans and Jewish Americans.

“Hate’s never defeated. It only hides. It hides. And given just a little bit of oxygen by its leaders, it comes out from under the rock like it’s happening again, as if it never went away. So folks, we must not give hate a safe harbour.”

Joe Biden on Tuesday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where hundreds of Black Americans were massacred by a white mob in 1921, and he said the legacy of racist violence and white supremacy still resonates.

Biden came to Tulsa to put a spotlight on an event that epitomizes the country's history of brutal racial violence, despite the massacre being largely under the radar in U.S. classrooms and history books for years.

"We should know the good, the bad, everything," Biden said in a speech to the few survivors of the attack on Tulsa's Greenwood district and their descendants. "That's what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation."

Biden said the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and efforts by a number of states to restrict voting were echoes of the same problem.

"What happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism, with a through-line that exists today," Biden said.

White residents in Tulsa shot and killed up to 300 Black people on May 31 and June 1, 1921, and burned and looted homes and businesses, devastating a prosperous African-American community after a white woman accused a Black man of assault, an allegation that was never proven.

Insurance companies did not cover the damages and no one was charged for the violence.

Biden said one of the survivors of the attack was reminded of it on Jan. 6 when far-right supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol while Congress was certifying Biden's 2020 election win.

The White House has announced a set of policy initiatives to counter racial inequality, including plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood that suffer from persistent poverty and efforts to combat housing discrimination.

Families of the affected Oklahoma residents have pushed for financial reparations, a measure Biden has only committed to studying further.

Biden said his administration would soon also unveil measures to counter hate crimes and white supremacist violence that he said the intelligence community has concluded is "the most lethal threat to the homeland."

Joe Biden warns of echoes of Tulsa massacre in the United States today

He also entrusted Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black American and first Asian American to hold that office, to lead his administration’s efforts to counter Republican efforts to restrict voting rights.

Multiple Republican-led states, arguing for a need to bolster election security, have passed or proposed voting restrictions, which Biden and other Democrats say are aimed at making it harder for Black voters to cast ballots.

But Biden nodded to a political reality he believes has stymied his efforts, including "a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends," an apparent reference to Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.

Biden oversaw a moment of silence for the Tulsa victims after meeting with three people who lived in Greenwood during the massacre, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle. Van Ellis, a military veteran, gave the president a salute.

Now between the ages of 101 and 107, the survivors asked Congress for “justice” this year and are parties to a lawsuit against state and local officials seeking remedies for the massacre, including a victims’ compensation fund.

Biden did not answer a reporter's question about whether there should be an official U.S. presidential apology for the killings.

The president "supports a study of reparations, but believes first and foremost the task in front of us is to root out systemic racism," spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.

RACIAL RECKONING

The visit came during a racial reckoning in the United States as the country's white majority shrinks, threats increase from white supremacist groups and the country re-examines its treatment of African Americans after last year's murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, sparked nationwide protests.

Biden, who won the presidency with critical support from Black voters, made fighting racial inequality a key platform of his 2020 campaign and has done the same since taking office. He met last week with members of Floyd’s family on the anniversary of his death and is pushing for passage of a police reform bill that bears Floyd’s name.

Yet Biden's history on issues of race is complex. He came under fire during the 2020 campaign for opposition to school busing programs in the 1970s that helped integrate American schools. Biden sponsored a 1994 crime bill that civil rights experts say contributed to a rise in mass incarceration and defended his work with two Southern segregationist senators during his days in the U.S. Senate.

His trip on Tuesday offered a sharp contrast to a year ago, when Trump, a Republican who criticized Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements, planned a political rally in Tulsa on June 19, the “Juneteenth” anniversary that celebrates the end of U.S. slavery in 1865. The rally was postponed after criticism.