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Greenwood Oklahoma and the Healing of Democracy
By: Dr. Stephen Morris
Growing up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, about an hour north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I would often hear rumors of a massacre in Tulsa. But often, these words were spoken in hushed tones and combined with Biblical themes of apocalyptical judgment when the sun and the moon turned blood red, words that were dismissed as old wives’ tales or unprovable myths.
It was not until after I received my doctorate in 2017 and had freed some mental space; I began to uncover information of the first aerial bombing in the United States that was an act of war against an African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not long after that, I discovered evidence that turned these old rumors and myths into history, kept alive by oral traditions African American ancestors handed down from one generation to the next.
One hundred years ago, on May 31, one of the most infamous tragedies to occur on American soil leaped from the pages of dusty old books and seldom read political hearing reports to the heart of the American consciousness. I sat mesmerized by pictures and stories that I had read and seen on national television (CBS and CNN). My heart sank as the horrors of bigotry and hate were unleashed on African American citizens. After a night of death and destruction, African American survivors were herded into internment camps and tagged “Police Protected” by the same police department that shot and killed family members the night before. Meanwhile, their family treasures were looted and stolen by armed whites and military personnel. The dead were buried in mass graves that have just recently been uncovered, yet many more graves are yet to be unearthed. They were much like those discovered after the Armenian Holocaust in Turkey, post-World War II Germany, in post-Viet Nam War Cambodia, and the ethnic cleansing wars of Central Europe.
Booker T. Washington, an African American educator and entrepreneur, called Greenwood the “Black Wall Street.” The success and fame of this Tulsa City District was well known, yet it disappeared from the pages of American history almost overnight. The fact that a cover-up on such a grand scale occurred speaks volumes of the systemic racism that permeates the American subconscious. President Harding issued a statement, other politicians paid due diligence, then it all went away. All levels of American society were complicit in keeping this horror and shame from our history books. If we never speak of our shame, how can we ever learn? Perhaps there was a desire not to know, to not change the repulsion of a Jim Crow, segregationist society.
Many asked why African Americans are still angry; after all, we fought a civil war to end slavery. But very few speak of the “Red Summer of 1919” or the years between 1917 through 1921 when over four dozen black communities across America were invaded and nearly destroyed by angry white mobs fueled by President Woodrow Wilson’s screening of the racist movie, the “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Where were cries for law and order when President Wilson, the initiator of the League of Nations, delayed and stymied the Women’s Suffrage Movement or introduced segregation into the Nation’s federal civil service bureau? Few speak of the nearly 5,000 men, women, and children who were lynched between 1870 and 1950 or of African American soldiers who fought in World War I and in World War II lynched in their uniforms. Did the Civil War end acts of systemic violence that make possible the cover-up of the Greenwood Massacre?
Another insidious factor of the Greenwood Massacre occurred when many insurance companies decided not to pay individuals and families to rebuild because Greenwood was labeled a “riot” and not a massacre. The Federal government later redlined Greenwood as a high-risk area; therefore, banks did not loan Greenwood families the money to rebuild. Many discussed the significant Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s as evidence of change in the Nation’s psyche. But few, if any acknowledge, the legislation of the 1960s was a near duplicate of the legislation of the 1860s and 70s.
When I reviewed the history of our nation’s faltering attempts to address systemic racism, I am saddened and hopeful. Sadly, so many lost lives and fortunes because of moral blindness and systemic racism. I am hopeful because even after the deaths of Ronald Green, 2018, George Floyd, 2020, and Breonna Taylor, 2020, we who survive have a deep abiding longing that someday equality will be manifested in the hallowed halls of our democracy. We courageously cling to the prospect that America will live up to the true meaning of its creed, that ALL are created equal, and ALL are equally entitled by their Creator to life, liberty, and pursuit of a quality life.
Greenwood, Oklahoma, is a reminder of why we need to have ethnic studies curriculum in our schools. As the Civic Education Center CEO, I hear many who question the validity of ethnic studies. They said, “This type of curriculum is not needed in our schools” or “Ethic Studies teaches people to be victims,” and lastly, “Why do you want to bring up hate? Can’t we forget it and move on?” Such statements often reflect blindness to the reality of race in America. There are just too many untold stories. These untold stories hinder American Democracy and hinder the belief that Democracy, as it stands, can endure. In a 2021 Brookings Report, only 17% of Generation Z, those born after 1996 and are about 23 years old today, believe democracy works. At the Civic Education Center, we empower student voices in the context of American Democracy. We teach students, teachers, and community members to become knowledgeable citizens engaged in the democratic process.
President Biden recently spoke these words regarding Greenwood, “Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try . . . Only with truth can come healing.” If our history books told the whole story of American Democracy, there would be less of a desire to have ethnic studies curriculum in our public schools. Let us remember Greenwood and garner the courageous hope of the Greenwood survivors who sought to rebuild their homes and businesses after the massacre in the face of tremendous opposition. We must forge ahead together to build a better America that exists in truth and in justice for all.
Watch Youth Race Dialogue
A Virtual civic dialogue on racism for youth in the Central Valley featuring Odessa Marcos, Elizabeth Rocha Zuniga, Anthony Utterback, Ayanna Moore, and Belle Vang, moderated by Brandon Gridiron. In collaboration with The Fresno State Ethic Center.
Click link below to watch.
Education Week: Supreme Court justices call for more civics education amid risk from ‘domestic enemies’
Two U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday renewed their calls for improving civics education, saying the future of the republic depends on it. “Our democracy is at risk not only from foreign but from domestic enemies,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during an online discussion sponsored by several groups. “Democracies crumble from within,” said Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. “They crumble. And there becomes a hunger for a certain faction to take over because they’re intolerant of others. They think they know the right answer and others do not.” Sotomayor was nominated by President Barack Obama and is considered among the more liberal members of the court, while Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump and is conservative on many issues. But both have worked on civics education initiatives since they joined the high court, and they have spoken jointly on the topic at least once before.
But Wednesday’s online session was the first since the contentious 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. The justices did not discuss those events in detail but they referred more than once to the deep political divisions in the country. “We had one of the highest turnouts in voting in the last election,” said Sotomayor. “Yet, at the same time, we see some of the cracks in our system. We have a great deal of partisan, very heated debate going on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can turn into an awful thing, into something that destroys the fabric of our community if we don’t learn how to talk to each other, how to discuss things with each other, and how to change things in a positive rather than a negative way.”
The Civics Secures Democracy Act
Take action: bit.ly/supportcivics
Watch Visalia Unifieds’ Student Services Director Brandon Gridiron discuss Black History in Tulare County. This video is an outcome of the District’s Common Ground Task Force facilitated by our CEO Stephen Morris.
Get your students involved! Join Our Virtual Civil Dialogue on Racism for Youth in the Central Valley.Youth-Racism-Flyer
CA State Seal of Civic EngagementState-Seal-Powerpoint
The Educating for Democracy Act
The Center for American Progress reports that, as of 2018, only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics or government studies while 31 require a half year of studies and fully ten states have no civics requirements at all. That lack of emphasis is reflected in low achievement levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) and, for those students who take advanced placement U.S. government assessments, among the lowest achievement scores among the several dozen tested subject areas. The federal government, too, has chronically underinvested in support for civics education. Civics education can empower students with the necessary knowledge, skills, and mindsets to engage effectively in in the civic and political life of their communities. In today’s contentious civil environment, it is more important than ever that students are equipped with knowledge of our institutions and confronted with the enduring questions of civic life and political change. The Educating for Democracy Act represents a bipartisan commitment to strengthening civics education, from K-12 through higher education. Click link below to read the full report.
What’s Next? Fresno’s Political Landscape as Seen by Youth Activists
The next meeting of the Central Valley Progressive PAC will feature Ashley Rojas, executive director of Fresno Barrios Unidos. Join the conversation via Zoom on Saturday, March 13, at 3:30pm. Zoom Link –>
February 2021 Newsletter1
July 2020 NewsletterJuly-Newsletter
“George Floyd’s death shows Americans must return to founding values and civic discourse.”
By Stephen Morris