This President Goes Where None Has Gone Before…

Biden Delivers Remarks To Commemorate 100th Anniversary …

The above video gives an extraordinary view of President Biden expanding his leadership by assuming the roles of teacher/historian—even as he accelerates his role as Healer-in-Chief.

I grew up in an integrated suburban community, and I live in one now. I went to integrated public schools, as did my daughters. None of us had ever heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Nor did we know that it was not the only violent incident in which well-established, thriving middle class Black communities were destroyed by vengeful white mobs.

Perhaps our lack of knowledge isn’t surprising. The New York Times interviewed a woman whose great-grandmother, a journalist who survived the massacre, had written a personal account of it. Anneliese M. Bruner said she was in her mid-thirties when her father gave her the book to read. She’d known nothing about it–or even about her great-grandmother. It was as though everything had been erased, she said.

When President Biden traveled to Tulsa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the decimation of Greenwood, a section of the city that was called “the Black Wall Street,” he described in often graphic detail the horrors that happened there.

Importantly, he placed them on a trajectory that included Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, and the attacks on voting that are occurring throughout the country at this moment.

He also tied such events—and the pervasive institutional racism still existing—to the need for the programs he’s proposed to help affected communities achieve the economic stability of home ownership and entrepreneurship, which the people of Greenwood and elsewhere had created of their own volition before the 1921 massacre.

I’m providing what I feel are the most important passages of his speech. I hope you’ll watch the entire 43 minutes, including the introduction by a young descendent of one of Greenwood’s prominent citizens. The video truly doesn’t seem very long and includes some lovely passages about Greenwood that I omitted for brevity.

“The events we speak of today took place 100 years ago, and yet I’m the first President in 100 years ever to come to Tulsa. I say that not as a compliment about me, but to acknowledge the truth…

For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much,… it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try. And so it is here…only with truth can come healing, and justice, and repair, only with truth, facing it. But that isn’t enough.

“First we have to see, hear, and give respect to Mother Randle, Mother Fletcher, and Mr. Van Ellis [survivors of the massacre]. And to all those lost so many years ago, to all the descendants of those who suffered, to this community.

“That’s why we’re here, to shine a light, to make sure America knows the story in full. May 1921, formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants are here in Tulsa, a boom town of oil and opportunity in a new frontier. On the North side across the rail tracks that divided the city, already segregated by law, they built something of their own…worthy of their talent and their ambition.

Greenwood, a community, a way of life. Black doctors and lawyers, pastors, teachers, running hospitals, law practices, libraries, churches, schools, black veterans…who fought, volunteered, and fought and came home, and still faced such prejudice. Veterans have been back a few years helping after winning the first World War, building a new life back home with pride and confidence…and, there were at the time mom and pop black diners, grocery stores, barbershops, tailors, the things that make up a community…

“…One night changed everything…While Greenwood was a community to itself, it was not separated from the outside. It wasn’t everyone, but there was enough hate, resentment, and vengeance in the community. Enough people who believe that America does not belong to everyone, and not everyone is created equal, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Black Americans, a belief enforced by law, by badge, by hood, and by noose.”

In less than 24 hours, hundreds of people were killed (though the official count is 36). More than 1,100 homes and businesses were destroyed, and 10,000 people lost everything. Many were put in internment camps, and Biden said a survivor reported that they were told never to mention the camp “or we’ll come and get you.”

Then, just as the Republican Party has been attempting to do with the January 6th insurrection today, there was a concerted effort to bury the incident.

President Biden spoke of the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan “because of guys like me who are Catholic. It wasn’t about African-Americans then. It was about making sure that all those Polish, and Irish, and Italian, and Eastern European Catholics, who came to the United States after World War I would not pollute Christianity…Millions of white Americans belonged to the Klan, and they weren’t even embarrassed by it. They were proud of it.

“And that hate became embedded systematically and systemically in our laws and our culture. We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today, because it does still impact us today. 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. And we’re a great nation. The only way to build a common ground is to truly repair and to rebuild.

“…I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence, wounds deepen. As painful as this is, only in remembrance do wounds heal. We just have to choose to remember. We memorialize what happened here in Tulsa so it can’t be erased. We know here, this hallowed place, we simply can’t bury pain and trauma forever.

“And at some point, there’ll be a reckoning, an inflection point like we’re facing right now as a nation. What many people hadn’t seen before, or simply refused to see, cannot be ignored any longer. You see it in so many places.

There’s a greater recognition that for too long, we’ve allowed a narrowed, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester, the view that America is a zero-sum game, where there’s only one winner. If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you get a job, I lose mine. And maybe worst of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up. Instead of if you do well, we all do well.” (emphasis mine)

The President is basing his policies now on trying to improve the plight of all poor and middle class people.

He makes a compelling case for the specific need to address the imbalance that has always existed in US laws and governmental practices and prevented Black people from getting their fair share. Though progress has been made, much still remains to be done, and we keep having to relearn the lessons of the past. Astonishingly, home ownership by Black Americans is lower today than it was 50 years ago, after passage of the Fair Housing Act.

His premise is that making the governmental investments in the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, his proposed infrastructure and human capital legislation, goes beyond the matter of equity; encouraging home ownership and entrepreneurship among Black Americans who’ve been denied it for so long will help the economy as a whole, thereby benefiting our entire nation.

“But just as fundamental as any of these investments I’ve discussed is, maybe the most fundamental, the right to vote, the right to vote…This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I’ve never seen, even though I got started as a public defender and a civil rights lawyer, with an intensity and aggressiveness-

“… It’s simply un-American. It’s not, however, sadly, unprecedented.”

He discussed the Civil Rights Movement, “We shall overcome,” and said how proud he’d been to be a little part of it, but that the “obstacles to progress…are a constant challenge.”

Stressing that the rule of law and democracy prevailed in 2020—that we did overcome—he noted:

“I will have more to say about this at a later date, the truly unprecedented assault on our democracy. An effort to replace nonpartisan election administrators, and to intimidate those charged with tallying and reporting the election results.

But today, as for the act of voting itself, I urge voting rights groups in this country to begin to redouble their efforts now to register and educate voters. And June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill. I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate. With two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends, but we’re not giving up.

“Early this year, the House of Representatives passed [the] For the People Act to protect our democracy. The Senate will take it up later this month, and I’m going to fight like heck with every tool in my disposal for its passage. The House is also working on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is critical to providing new legal tools to combat the new assault on the right to vote.

“To signify the importance of our efforts, today I’m asking Vice President Harris to help these efforts and lead them among her many other responsibilities. With her leadership, and your support, we’re going to overcome again. I promise you, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work.”

“Two weeks ago, I signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which the House had passed to the Senate. My administration will soon lay out our broader strategy to counter domestic terrorism...

“Dr. John Hope Franklin, one of America’s greatest historians, Tulsa’s proud son, whose father was a Greenwood survivor, said, and I quote, ‘Whatever you do, it must be done in the spirit of goodwill and mutual respect, and even love. How else can we overcome the past and be worthy of our forebears and face the future with confidence and with hope?’

“On this sacred and solemn day, may we find that distinctly Greenwood spirit that defines the American spirit. The spirit that gives me so much confidence and hope for the future. That helps us see face-to-face a spirit that helps us know fully who we are, and who we can be as a people and as a nation. I’ve never been more optimistic about the future than I am today…because of this new generation of young people. They’re the best educated. They’re the least prejudiced. They’re the most open generation in American history.

“There was a famous poet who wrote a poem called A Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney. There’s a stanza in it, I think, is the definition of what I think should be our call today for young people. He said, ‘History teaches us not to hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime, that longed for tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme.’ Let’s make it rhyme.’”

Yes, let’s do that. Let’s stop refighting the ugly battles of the past and move forward to become “who we can be as a people and a nation.”

Annie

22 thoughts on “This President Goes Where None Has Gone Before…

  1. Annie, this was much needed and way too late. I was watching “The View” with my wife and even Meghan McCain, a Republican was complimentary of what Biden did. I was unaware of this event until last year, which disturbs me. I was aware of the terrible coup in Wilmington, NC that occurred in 1898, but only learned that in the last ten years. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keith, I was deeply moved by Biden’s speech and the way he wove together past and present, remembering and moving forward. His response to the commemoration was very thoughtful and carefully considered—truly right for our time. To me, the issue is what we do with this terrible knowledge now that it’s finally surfaced.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. I think making it more known is big start. This is especially true with those who want erase all bad things from our history books as if we are China or North Korea.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting stuff. A couple thoughts. As someone who taught school for over 30 years I learned that you cannot teach anyone who is not ready to learn. You can’t force knowledge or skills on people. So, no matter how important history is, if a large segment of the population has their hands over their ears (heae no evil),it is to no avail.

    Regarding the 2nd coming of the KKK and immigrants. My grandparents, Catholic immigrants from Poland, were victimized by the KKK in Indiana. Ended up leaving the state. Are we now seeing the 3rd KKK renewal?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’re right about forcing knowledge, Joseph. But I am hoping that just as George Floyd’s murder shook people to their core, the knowledge of an entire middle class community being decimated will reach hearts that are at least somewhat open.

      Terrible to hear about your grandparents’ victimization. I don’t think it matters much whether the white supremacists are KKK, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, or other extremists. They must be brought to justice—and their presence in police forces and the military must be ended.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for focusing on an incident that, like many manifestations of extreme racism, have long been buried in our nation’s past. Here’s hoping that occurrences such as the Tulsa Race Massacre will now be included in schoolbooks so Americans will—from an early age—have a more thorough knowledge of racism’s horrific consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done. I, too, hadn’t heard of the Tulsa experience. Shocking. And good for President Biden for connecting the dots between then and now. He’s just a decent man with a firm grasp of history and his vision for the future. What more could we want as a country? Let’s each rally around him and any part of his agenda that we might further. Nice work, Annie. Appreciate the context.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Denise. And he just keeps moving forward, despite all the obstacles he faces. My respect for him continues to grow. Yes, we must try to help him realize some of these excellent plans.

      Like

  5. Context, as always, is key: putting Tulsa in the trajectory is key, Annie, thank you for this article, and for this interesting title (I like it, as that is another task that does, or ought to, fall to the President):

    “Healer-in-Chief”

    Excellent article, Annie.

    Best regards,
    -Shira

    Like

  6. So true that the Tulsa massacre doesn’t receive anywhere near the recognition nor attention it deserves. I’ve just finished a discussion with someone about the ‘Tinker Experiment’ in Scotland, a likewise horrible phenomenon which has been largely forgotten. So wrong that these events are allowed to slide from the collective consciousness, but Biden if definitely right to reference it, particularly in the light of Charlottesville etc. Great piece as always, Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Matthew. I just looked up the “Tinker experiment.” Horrific how seemingly civilized governments can be so destructive. Families torn apart is now such a recent stain in the US—though the previous administration made no pretenses…

      Will this sorry episode appear in your dissertation? Have the appeals for an apology gained any traction?

      Like

  7. Excellent speech. There is much here that should be repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, it can’t all be encapsulated into a simple-minded slogan such as “build the wall”.

    I also had never heard of the Tulsa massacre. After learning about the magnitude of the persecution that took place, I found it mind-boggling that this wasn’t better known.

    Thanks for your summary and analysis Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Carol. I think this speech was brave and important and I hope it will be remembered.

      I have written about Heather McGhee, whose book “The Sum of Us” is a valuable exploration of the paragraph in Biden’s speech about the terrible ways our society has been held back by the “zero sum game.” I bolded that paragraph because I think it’s critical to understanding the link from slavery to today.

      Liked by 1 person

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