Sometime in May, when headlines about the “Tulsa Massacre” 100th anniversary began to stream in from every outlet from the Washington Post (following the lead of rapper Common in describing “race massacres”) to the Wall Street Journal, obscuring Memorial Day, it became clear what this was about: another “conversation” about race.
President Joe Biden exploited the anniversary by traveling to Tulsa and bragging that he was the first president to do so. As if he just had The 1619 Project read to him, he used the tragedy to ram home the idea that it was emblematic of our nation’s history, and that today racism is still “embedded … systematically in our laws and our culture.”
Biden’s speech directly linked today’s fabricated atrocities with those of 100 years ago. A “through-line” connects the “hate and domestic terrorism” of that event to our situation today, he said, illustrating a way of looking at history that is being promoted in curricula such as The 1619 Project and the Zinn Education Project.
“Remember what you saw in Charlottesville four years ago,” he continued, “Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK coming out of those fields.” Then he claimed outrageously that “terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today, not ISIS, not Al Qaeda.”
The “history lesson” of Tulsa is also being used for another political goal: to lobby against bills in numerous states that would prevent the use of critical race theory and curricula like The 1619 Project.
One of those lobbying against the bills is columnist Leonard Pitts, who has spent decades presenting the world similar ideological precepts of race. Seizing the opportunity, he claimed that the “massacre,” in which 35 city blocks were “leveled by white mobs” and 300 black Americans were killed, was “not some isolated event” but was “echoed by New York in 1863, Memphis and New Orleans in 1866, Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917,” and so on.
For Pitts and like-minded commentators, such remembrances provide opportunities to hammer home the idea, as Nikole Hannah-Jones put it in her lead essay in The 1619 Project, that racism is “systemic” and found in the very “DNA” of white Americans. Pitts points to “thousands” of “mass-casualty events” of “white mobs killing Black people in large numbers, often torching their communities” and “lynchings where ‘only’ one or two African Americans might be tortured to death with grisly creativity.”
Like Biden, Pitts used the anniversary to make a political point by noting the confluence of the commemoration and the introduction of legislation in Republican-led states, including Oklahoma, which has banned critical race theory. Such legislation would deny students the ability “to ask necessary questions,” such as “how did good, Christian white people get it in their heads one day to commit mass murder?”
Thus, Pitts reveals the very reason we should ban critical race theory from schools: It imposes a kind of historical interpretation that demonizes “white people,” sweepingly casting them as — as Pitts puts it — “enjoy[ing]” “advantages … made possible by disadvantages imposed on others.” This isn’t history. Nor is it “black history,” which Pitts claims conservatives do not want schools to teach on the pretext that “it might hurt white feelings.”
Much like Hannah-Jones, who on Twitter holds up a “black sister” and highlights when a critic is a “74-year-old white man,” Pitts displays animus towards white people and never considers the harmful effect of teaching elementary school children that they’re responsible, by dint of their skin color, for the suffering of black Americans both past and present.
Telling the Entirety of History
Fortunately, this is not the approach of 1776 Unites, a black-run organization that opposes critical race theory. They have begun offering alternative curricula, free with registration, including a two-part lesson about Tulsa.
Part One describes the settling of the Oklahoma territory by American Indian tribes and their black slaves in the 1830s, the achievements of black attorney J. Coody Johnson, the granting of tribal membership by the Creek and Seminole, the oil boom, the prospering of the Greenwood section (known as “black Wall Street”), and the terroristic activities of the Ku Klux Klan against blacks and others.
There is a brief discussion of the 1919 Red Summer of rioting against newly discharged black World War I veterans who had battlefield experience, with the note that black Tulsans, raised in the “Western tradition of firearms ownership,” were particularly apt to take up arms in self-defense.
What led to the violence in 1921? As with most such cases, it began with a “minor incident” involving a young white female and a young black man, note the lesson materials. During a standoff between armed white men and armed black men outside the courthouse, a struggle ensued after a white man tried to seize a black man’s rifle. Twelve people — ten white Americans and two black Americans — were killed.
The 1776 Unites lesson does not hold back on what happened in the early morning hours of June 1 when “mobs pillaged black homes and businesses, killing those who resisted. Even Whites who tried to help their Black neighbors, or calm those in the mobs … were threatened or fired upon.” By the time the National Guard arrived around midday, 35 blocks had burned.
Part Two is about “Battling Back,” about how some like Greenwood “founder” O.W. Gurley, a son of freed slaves, fled to California, while others stayed to rebuild. And not all whites were racist. Maurice Willows, a Red Cross official, convinced his organization to declare Tulsa a “natural disaster area” in order to provide medical assistance, food, and supplies to the residents.
Discussion questions are thoughtful and expand into universal concerns, such as “mob mentality” and “vigilantism.” The implications of naming are explored. Should it be called a “race war,” as it was by the press, or a “riot,” which implies both sides were equally responsible? Is “massacre” appropriate?
In fact, black Tulsans did not passively allow themselves to be massacred, but fought back. Such lessons about language not only counter negative stereotypes but encourage real critical thinking about the presentation of such events in today’s media — which overwhelmingly used the word “massacre” to describe this historical event.
The donations by black churches, black prisoners, and the Red Cross are recounted. So is the successful fight by black attorneys to stop the walling off of Greenwood for an industrial area. Photos show a thriving, rebuilt district in the 1930s and the 1940s of more than 200 black-owned businesses. What led to Greenwood’s decline was integration, as people moved away, and urban renewal. In the 1970s most of Greenwood was demolished for Interstate 244. Good questions about “urban renewal” and “eminent domain” are posed.
Disingenuous Pushback Against Critics
Do not expect this kind of balanced discussion in the Zinn Education Project or in any of the other groups providing critical race theory-framed history lessons. They don’t want students to think about the dangers of “mobs” (instead, they encourage student protest), the harm of leftist government programs, or blacks’ ability to succeed as entrepreneurs.
The Zinn Education Project, which has been pushing the lessons about the “Tulsa Massacre” as one of its “This Day in History” atrocity for years, is vigorously lobbying against legislation such as that in Ohio, which bans teaching that individuals, by virtue of their race, are “inherently racist” and any requirement that a teacher “affirm a belief in the systemic nature of racism.”
The Missouri bill would ban what the Zinn Education Project calls the curricula of “leading social justice education groups”: “The 1619 Project initiative of the New York Times, the Learning for Justice Curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, We Stories, programs of Educational Equity Consultants, BLM at School, Teaching for Change, Zinn Education Project, and any other similar, predecessor, or successor curricula.” Their campaign has garnered the signatures of more than 2,500 teachers, they claim. A “Day of Action” is planned for June 12.
Such organizations peddling critical race theory-geared lessons are aided in their disinformation campaign by corporate media. A New York Times article insinuates that anti-critical race theory bills are part of the Republican Party’s “broad strategy to run on culture-war issues in 2022.” Other outlets, such as The Guardian, claim that they are attempts to teach a “whitewashed” version of history.
Some columnists also follow Pitts’s example. Tony Messenger at Saint Louis Today, in a column approvingly tweeted by Hannah-Jones, piled on other “massacres” in East St. Louis and “similar mob attacks” in other cities. Like Pitts, he does not mention the rebuilding, but claims that this “absolute wiping out of Black wealth” was “because of racial prejudice.” Well, maybe, if you can make the case that “urban renewal” was not motivated by liberal Democratic policies or that those putting interstates through cities were motivated by racism.
Like Pitts, Messenger charges that bills by “white Republicans” would “ban the teaching of history in public schools as told from the Black perspective, such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The 1619 Project.” Messenger flatters himself by claiming he knows what “the Black perspective” is. Sadly, that has been the mistaken, racist notion for far too long.
History is complicated. People don’t act as preprogrammed members of racial, ethnic, or class groups. At times, individuals act nobly; on other occasions, sometimes terribly, and all in situations often far different from ours. Some people participate in mobs; others help the victims of mobs.
So, no, eliminating critical race theory and the 1619 Project would not preclude teaching black history. On the contrary, it would allow a multifaceted, honest, and truthful history to be told.