George Floyd, the Tulsa Massacre, and Memorial Days

This year, Memorial Day, the national holiday on which we commemorate the men and women of the American military who died in the course of war, falls on May 31st, a date that marks the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, a racial pogrom in which the Black population of the prosperous Greenwood District of that city was attacked, murdered, and terrorized, leaving as many as three hundred dead. Last year, Memorial Day fell on May 25th, the day that George Floyd died, in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer; the ineffable terribleness of the video depicting his death soon launched a wave of chaos and fury that swept across the nation. The massacre in Greenwood was just one outrage among a cluster of racially motivated eruptions that began in the aftermath of the First World War—the bloodletting in mid-1919 was so commonplace that the period came to be known as the Red Summer. The protracted brutality of Floyd’s death sparked protests and uprisings in more than three hundred and fifty cities in the United States. These two Memorial Days point inescapably not only to those who have died on battlefields abroad but to the theatres of conflict at home and the freighted politics of race, grief, and culpability.

The Tulsa massacre erupted in response to rumors that a nineteen-year-old Black shoeshiner named Dick Rowland had assaulted a seventeen-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. Rowland was arrested and held in the local jail, as armed white men began gathering outside. Armed Black men, many of them war veterans, fearing that Rowland would be lynched, also began arriving at the site. After the two groups exchanged gunfire, a mob of whites, many of them deputized by the local sheriff, poured into the Greenwood District, setting fires and waging indiscriminate warfare against the Black population. Private planes flew low over the destruction, and some witness accounts claimed that incendiaries were dropped onto the community below. By the end, roughly thirty blocks had been levelled, more than twelve hundred homes destroyed, and hundreds of people killed. The campaign left virtually the entire Black community homeless.

The immediate aftermath was marked by a different kind of campaign—one of erasure. Official documents disappeared, some victims were buried in unmarked graves, and accounts of the violence were excised from newspaper archives. As the Times has noted, “City officials cleansed the history books so thoroughly that when Nancy Feldman, a lawyer from Illinois, started teaching at the University of Tulsa about the massacre in the late 1940s, they didn’t believe her.” So successful were these efforts that, seventy-four years later, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing a hundred and sixty-eight people, it was referred to as the first terrorist attack in the state’s history. Last week, Lessie Benningfield Randle, who, at the age of a hundred and six, is one of the three oldest known witnesses to the massacre, told a congressional committee, “I was so scared. I didn’t think we could make it out alive.”

Ninety-nine years separate the tragedy that took place in Tulsa from the one that occurred last May in Minneapolis, two very different incidents in very different times. Yet they share commonalities. The violence in Tulsa was orchestrated by mobs but also overseen by law enforcement and deputized civilians. The erasure in Floyd’s case began immediately after he died, with a police report stating that he had expired as the result of a “medical incident during police interaction,” while making no mention of the fact that an officer had held his knee on Floyd’s neck. But for a cell-phone video shot by a seventeen-year-old, Darnella Frazier, the official—and false—account of Floyd’s death might have held. It’s possible to compare the wake of Tulsa with the aftermath of Floyd’s death and find a narrative of progress. In 2001, a bipartisan commission in Oklahoma issued a report on the origins, scope, and impact of the Tulsa massacre. But, despite the report’s evidence of the culpability of government actors, the state of Oklahoma has yet to compensate the survivors of the attack or the descendants of the victims. By contrast, the city of Minneapolis agreed to a twenty-seven-million-dollar settlement with Floyd’s family. The perpetrators of the Tulsa massacre were allowed to live out their remaining years untroubled by legal inquiry; the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on three counts in Floyd’s death, and the prosecution has argued that there are aggravating factors which could prolong any sentence he receives. The moral indictment that Tulsa represented vanished seemingly as soon as the smoke from the smoldering homes had dissipated. But the shock at the brutality captured on video last year prompted a national reckoning with race, and spurred an outpouring of condemnation and of mercenary, albeit important, endorsements of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” from the staid corners of the corporate world.

George Floyd’s family members visited President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris at the White House on Tuesday. Biden set this date, the actual anniversary of Floyd’s death, as a deadline for introducing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a reform package which passed the House and whose particulars are now being hammered out by Senators Cory Booker, Tim Scott, and others. (Scott has indicated that they are close to a deal that could receive enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate.) Yet the question remains of whether Floyd’s case will represent any substantive change in how police killings of unarmed