President Joe Biden marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre on Tuesday by warning of a “thruline” of systemic racism “that exists today” including the threat of white supremacist violence and an assault on voting rights.
Biden said that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead efforts to push for voting protections as Republican-led statehouses put in place election restrictions on such things as early and mail-in balloting.
As the first president to visit Tulsa, OK, to commemorate the massacre, which left as many as 300 people dead and the Black community of Greenwood devastated, Biden devoted a portion of his speech to explaining why the terrorism of those two days in 1921 was purposely left out of the history books. He characterized it as an effort to “erase it from our memory.”
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness,” Biden said. “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.”
He said that “some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try.”
At one point in his speech, Biden paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims, while noting the importance of learning the extent of the history of what happened that day.
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” Biden said. “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 only way to build a common ground is to truly repair and rebuild.”
Just before the speech, Biden met with three centenarians thought to be the only living survivors of the massacre: Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle.
Biden noted that there were no arrests after the massacre, nor was there a formal process of counting those who were killed. Insurance companies denied claims because policies didn’t cover riots.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot,” Biden said. “This was a massacre. Among the worst in our history, but not the only one.”
Biden did not address the question of reparations for the descendants of the Tulsa massacre. He did outline steps that the administration is taking to combat racial discrimination in housing and to boost the level of federal government contracting to small businesses owned by people of color.
He also was explicit in noting that the systemic racism that existed a century ago filtered through history and exists today. He mentioned the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Jewish Americans, as well as the January 6 riot at the Capitol.
“Mother Fletcher said when she saw the insurrection at the Capitol … it broke her heart,” he said. “A mob of violent white extremists, thugs, reminded her of what happened here in Greenwood 100 years ago.”
He said that after passage of civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, “I thought we moved. What I didn’t realize. I thought we made enormous progress, I was so proud to be a little part of it. …I didn’t realize hate is never defeated. It only hides. It hides. It is given a little bit of oxygen, just a little bit of oxygen by its leaders, it comes out from under the rock like it was happening again, as if it never went away.”
He noted the intelligence community assessment that terrorism from white supremacy “is the most lethal threat to the homeland today.”
Meanwhile, as Republican-led states pass or attempt to pass election measures, Democrats are turning to a federal bill, the For the People Act, to counter the restrictions on voting and to reform other parts of the electoral process, like gerrymandering. Biden called it an “unprecedented assault on our democracy, an effort to replace non partisan election administrators and to intimidate those charged with tallying and reporting the election results.”
But Harris’ challenge will be in navigating the next steps, as the legislation almost certainly cannot obtain the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. This has led to calls by activists, public interest groups and a number of Democrats to end the filibuster, which would allow for passage by simple majority. Yet Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said that he opposes such a move.
Biden said that he was going to “fight like heck with every tool of my disposal” for passage of the legislation, but he indicated that he would have more to say about it later. He did make an apparent reference to Manchin and another Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema, as two members “who vote with my Republican friends.”
“But we’re not giving up,” he said.
Harris said in a statement, “In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide. And we will also work with members of Congress to help advance these bills.”
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