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   Vol.65/No.12            March 26, 2001 
Tulsa racist riot: what it showed
After 80 years, a state government commission in Oklahoma has issued the first official report on the 1921 riot by a racist mob and the government complicity in the assault, which claimed the lives of hundreds of Blacks in Tulsa and destroyed the Greenwood community where they lived.

The lifting of the official silence on the event is a result of the continuing struggle for Black rights and the inability of the wealthy ruling minority to turn back the gains of the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. Works such as Scott Ellsworth's 1982 book Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, personal memoirs of the assault, and other studies over the years have helped keep the history and the lessons of those days alive.

The facts presented in the commission report and other books show that the 1921 incident was not an aberration but part of the systematic violence, both legal and extralegal, that African Americans have faced in U.S. capitalist society. The racist terror--whether thugs wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods or cops' and sheriffs' badges, or deputized mobs--aimed to keep Blacks as second-class citizens and a cheap source of labor for the employers in the factories and fields.

The employers have also used this oppression against Blacks to keep the entire working class divided and unable to form strong unions or political organizations of its own. This is highlighted by the fact that the International Workers of the World was a target of attack by reactionary thug groups in the area around the same time as the attacks on Blacks in Tulsa.

The Tulsa events and others like them around the country happened at a time when the U.S. billionaire families began to assert their place as the dominant imperialist power in the world, a place gained through wars abroad and exploitation of working people and racist oppression at home.

One aspect of the various reports on the destruction of Tulsa's Black community in 1921 stands out: the confidence and determination of Blacks to prevent the lynching of Dick Rowland and defend their community, and the fact they were not beaten down in the wake of the murderous assault. This resistance was a problem for the U.S. rulers that would only deepen over the next decades.

The giant labor battles in the 1930s that built the industrial unions broke the color bar and organized workers on a scale never before seen in the United States. As Black resistance deepened, the civil rights movement shook the racist foundations of U.S. capitalism, overturned Jim Crow, and gave a mighty impetus to other struggles of the oppressed and exploited. These battles transformed the consciousness of broad layers of the working class, strengthened the labor movement, and undercut the ability of the bosses to use racism to divide workers and break unions. Today, openly racist outfits like the KKK are despised by most working people regardless of the color of their skin.

The racist pogrom in Tulsa is not solely a historical event of the past. It underscores how racist oppression and violence is built into the very foundations of capitalism in the United States. Today, the government, Democrats and Republicans alike, has sharply increased the use of the cops, courts, prisons, and the death penalty against working people--and a particular target remains African Americans.

As the social crisis deepens, the ruling minority will unleash rightist and fascist terror gangs to target militant workers and farmers, including Blacks and Latinos. The potential strengthening of working people over the past decades offers the objective possibility for defeating such assaults and building a massive movement of workers and farmers that eventually can take political power into their own hands. Knowing the truth about the racist riot in Tulsa and its lessons is an essential part of educating ourselves and preparing for the coming battles.
Related article:
Report reveals facts on 1921 racist riot against Blacks in Oklahoma  
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