Biden links Tulsa massacre to today’s racist voting rights repression
President Joe Biden commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre on June 1 at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, OK. AP/Evan Vucci

TULSA, Okla.—Declaring “hell was unleashed” a century ago in Tulsa, Okla., Democratic President Joe Biden denounced ongoing racism in U.S. history, linking the white massacre of at least 300 Black people there 100 years ago to modern-day subjugation, pointedly including voting rights suppression.

And he also repeated his strong support for HR1/S1, the For The People Act, which would negate all the GOP-initiated anti-voting measures passed and pending from coast to coast, among other aims.

The president came to Tulsa on May 31 to mark the centennial of the May 31-June 1, 1921 Tulsa Massacre, when a mob of at least 5,000 whites, aided and abetted by white state and local officials, the Tulsa corporate elite, and the right-wing white newspaper, burned down the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, known nationwide as “The Black Wall Street.”

The neighborhood was bombed from the air, and white mobs set fires on the ground. Homes, churches, and businesses were burned to the ground over 40 square blocks. Besides the dead, hundreds of Black people were imprisoned afterward for their own “protection,” and at least 10,000 were forced to flee—many of them forever.

Blacks were shot down in the streets, with their bodies dumped into unmarked graves or thrown into the Arkansas River. There were no arrests of the white mob members, no trials, no apology from the state, the city, the paper, or Chamber of Commerce, and no reparations. Property damage was at least $200 million in today’s dollars. And Tulsa has never fully recovered.

“I come here to help fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen,” the president told the crowd gathered inside and outside the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church facing where Greenwood once stood.

“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,” Biden said. “And while darkness can hide much, it can never erase what happened. That’s why we’re here: To shine a light, to make sure America knows the story in full.”

The racism continues and combatting it has been one of Biden’s top priorities since he took over the Oval Office. Indeed, when he announced his presidential run, Biden said he was propelled into the race by GOP predecessor Donald Trump’s endorsement of the march of racists in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. The neo-Nazis there, whom Trump called “very fine people,” killed peaceful counterprotester Heather Heyer and injured between 19 and 36 others.

The racism continues in Tulsa, as well as in next-door Texas and elsewhere nationally. In Texas, an 11:30 pm Democratic state House walkout on the last day of the legislative session prevented a quorum the all-white GOP majority needed to pass the nation’s most restrictive voter repression law, designed to suppress voters of color.

It would do so by restricting Sunday early voting hours, thus eliminating “Souls to the polls” campaigns sponsored by Black churches. It would add further restrictions on who can vote and how they can vote—by curbing polling places and drive-through balloting.

And it would give the state’s white oligarchy, through the government, even more control over elections. Its specific target is Harris County (Houston), the most populous, most-Democratic, and with huge numbers of voters of color.

“State lawmakers are holding the line. Federal lawmakers need to get their —- together and pass the For The People Act,” state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, tweeted after the walkout. White right-wing GOP Gov. Greg Abbott plans to call a special session later to enact the racist legislation.

Oklahoma is no better. Greenwood has been split from Tulsa by an interstate highway and is now far from rich. And on May 7, before Biden’s arrival, the majority-white, majority-GOP legislature passed, and white GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation banning teaching “critical race theory,” which deals with the history of U.S. racism, in public schools.

Biden also met with the three remaining survivors of the Massacre, all aged at least 100, and named Vice President Kamala Harris, herself both Black and Asian-American, to lead the administration’s campaign to get senators to approve the For The People Act, a comprehensive election and voting rights law rewrite that would repeal GOP suppression efforts—including an onerous one in next-door Texas.

“You are the three known remaining survivors seen in the mirror dimly. But no longer,” Biden told Viola Fletcher, Leslie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, and Hughes Van Ellis. “Now your story will be known in full view. The events we speak of today took place 100 years ago, and yet I’m the first president in 100 years ever to come to Tulsa.”

Biden also named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the campaign to pass HR1/S1, the For The People Act. Days before he went to Tulsa, Biden also called the Texas anti-voting law “un-American and un-democratic.”

“Every American has a right to have their voice heard at the ballot box, and no American should be kept from voting early, voting by mail, or voting at all,” said Harris, accepting the voting rights assignment. “Our democracy is strongest when everyone participates, and it is weaker when people are left out.

“Throughout the arc of our nation’s history, many have worked—and many have died—to ensure that all Americans can cast a ballot and have their vote counted. Today, that hard-won progress is under assault” from “.more than 380 bills have been introduced across the country that would make it harder for Americans to vote… Our administration will not stand by when confronted with any effort that keeps Americans from voting.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.