Biden to meet Tulsa race massacre survivors, pledge to ‘root out systemic racism’ in US

WASHINGTON — One hundred years after a white mob burned “Black Wall Street” to the ground, killing hundreds of African Americans and forcing thousands from their homes, President Joe Biden will visit Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday to commemorate one of the bloodiest race massacres in U.S. history.

Biden will deliver remarks on the 100-year anniversary and speak to survivors of the attack, who are now between the ages of 101 and 107. Only three remain.

On Monday, the White House issued a proclamation in which Biden called on Americans “to commemorate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those 2 days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd on June 9, 2020, in Houston. (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

Tracing a history of Black perseverance, and violent racist backlash,  Biden will pledge to the last survivors of the massacre that the nation will never forget the event.

“We honor the legacy of the Greenwood community and of Black Wall Street by reaffirming our commitment to advance racial justice through the whole of our government, and working to root out systemic racism from our laws, our policies, and our hearts,” the statement reads.

Presidential priorities

For a century, the Tulsa race massacre of May 31, 1921, went largely ignored by sitting U.S. presidents, never prompting a trip specifically to honor those killed in the once-thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood until now.

Immediately after the massacre, President Warren G. Harding said he was “shocked” and hoped that “such a spectacle would never again be witnessed in this country,” a plea the federal government did little to ensure. Subsequent incidents of racist violence continued for decades after the wholesale killings in Tulsa. 

Former President Donald Trump visited Tulsa last June for his first campaign rally amid the coronavirus pandemic. He faced criticism for initially scheduling it on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. But Trump did not reference the massacre in his remarks that made headlines instead for saying he wanted to slow down testing for the COVID-19 virus. 

“This is very, very significant that the president of the United States is coming here,” said Scott Ellsworth, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” a comprehensive history of the massacre. “Everyone I’ve spoken to in the community has supported this.”

A commander-in-chief acknowledging “the worst single incident of racial violence in American history,” according to Ellsworth, is significant for the focus Biden’s visit will put on the centennial and broader efforts to grapple with the nation’s past failings on racial equality.

“The Black citizens of Tulsa were let down by their city government, by their state government but they were also let down by the federal government in this massacre,” Ellsworth said.

“There was never any sort of federal investigation despite the fact that over 1,000 Black homes and businesses were burned to the ground and more than 10,000 people were made homeless. The federal government never stepped in and tried to figure out what happened.”

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