‘This was not a riot. This was a massacre,’ says Biden on 100th anniversary of Tulsa slaughter of black Americans

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President Biden on Tuesday became the first chief executive to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa race massacre that claimed the lives of dozens if not hundreds of black Americans 100 years, declaring, “This was not a riot. This was a massacre.”

“I come here to help fill the silence,” Biden told his audience at the Greenwood Cultural Center, in Tulsa, Okla., where he toured an exhibit marking the centenary of the massacre. “Because in silence, wounds deepen. And only, as painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal. We just have to choose to remember.”

Biden began his remarks with a recounting of the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, beginning with the arrest of a black shoeshiner accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator and continuing through the Ku Klux Klan-led carnage that leveled approximately three dozen blocks of the Greenwood district, dubbed “Black Wall Street” due to its prosperity.

“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot,” the president said after pausing for a moment of silence. “This was a massacre.”

The exact number of people killed over those two days has never been fully determined. A commission established by the Oklahoma legislature reported in 2001 that it had confirmed 39 victims, but added that the true number could be as high as 300.

The massacre, long relegated to the margins of American history, has gained new prominence due to the centennial commemorations following a year of racial strife brought on by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened, or it doesn’t impact us today, because it does still impact us today,” Biden said. “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know, and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do, they come to terms with their dark sides.”

The president declined to touch on whether survivors of the massacre should receive reparations. Some black Tulsa residents question whether the $20 million spent to build the soon-to-open Greenwood Rising museum in an increasingly gentrified part of the city could have been better spent helping massacre survivors, the descendants of victims, or residents of the city’s predominantly Black north side several miles away from Greenwood.

When pressed by a reporter earlier Tuesday about whether Biden would like “any government effort to repay those families,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeated that Biden’s objective was underscoring historical facts and boosting public awareness about the massacre.

“He wants to make sure that this is on record, that this is not forgotten — a story that has not been told is told,” she said. “And, you know, it is an indictment of systemic racism that these survivors have been forced to fight for literally 100 years to have their humanity recognized and to have justice served, and justice and fairness still eludes them.”

Jean-Pierre added that Biden “supports a study, as we’ve said before, into reparations, but believes that, first and foremost, the task in front of us is not to root out — is to root out systemic racism where it exists right now. And that’s why it’s a — central to all of his agenda.”

The president also announced in his remarks that Vice President Kamala Harris would lead the administration’s effort to counter state election reform laws that Democrats say make it harder for minorities to cast a ballot.

“With her leadership, and your support, we’re gonna overcome again, I promise you,” Biden said of Harris. “But it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of work.”

The president added that he would “fight like heck” to secure the passage of the For The People Act, a massive federal overhaul of the election system, and voting rights legislation named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

In a separate statement Tuesday, Harris — who Biden has also deputized to handle issues related to the border crisis — pledged: “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.

“The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” Harris added. “This is the work of democracy.”

With Post wires

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