President Joe Biden on Tuesday took part in a remembrance of one of the nation’s darkest and largely forgotten acts of racial violence, calling on Americans to come to terms with the nation’s “dark side” and to never forget the killing of hundreds of Black men, women and children in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn’t impact us today, because it still does impact us today,” Biden said, speaking at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla. “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.”
Biden — the first president to participate in a commemoration of the destruction of the flourishing community known as Black Wall Street — called for a moment of silence in honor of the 300 Black people who were killed a century ago.
“May their souls rest in peace,” Biden said before bowing his head.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot,” the president said, looking back up at the crowd. “This was a massacre.”
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob descended on Tulsa’s Greenwood District, going block by block in its deadly rampage. Another 10,000 Black Tulsans were left homeless by the destruction and placed in internment camps overseen by the National Guard. Biden said he came Tuesday to “shine a light” and make sure Americans know the full story.
“They were told, ‘Don’t you mention you were ever in a camp, or we’ll come and get you.’ That’s what the survivors told me. Yet no one, no arrests of the mob were made,” Biden said.
None of the survivors or their relatives have been compensated for the losses. Insurance companies declined most Black victims’ claims, which were worth more than $27 million today.
Before his speech on Tuesday, Biden toured the Greenwood Center, where he looked at photos of the prosperous district turned to flames. The president then met privately with the last three known survivors — ranging in age from 101 to 107 — who lived through the violent day that is rarely mentioned in history books.
Activists and survivors have pushed for reparations and called on Biden to embrace the idea, but there was no mention of payments in the Tuesday speech. The White House has said the president supports a study of reparations in Tulsa, and more broadly, though he has not committed to supporting the idea.
The national conversation surrounding racial injustice has heated up during the Biden presidency, following a year of civil unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last May. Biden, who has made racial equity a central theme of his presidency, has pledged to combat systemic racism in the United States.
After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was found guilty of murder, Biden said in April that the country’s work to address racism in America was far from done and that a guilty verdict was “not enough.”
“We can’t stop here,” Biden said on April 20, calling on Congress to act and pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by May 25. That deadline was missed, but both parties in Congress have expressed optimism that they will be able to reach compromise in the coming weeks.
The administration on Tuesday announced new measures to address the wealth gap between Black and white Americans, with plans to expand home ownership and small-business ownership in communities of color and disadvantaged communities.
The White House said the administration would also address racial discrimination in the housing market, where Black-owned homes are appraised less than comparable homes owned by white people. It will also issue new federal rules to combat housing discrimination.
The administration will also aim to increase by 50 percent the share of federal contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses by 2026.
Biden also talked about how his American Jobs Plan — still up for debate in Congress — would help create jobs and close the wealth gap for communities of color.
“We must change the things that we know we can change,” Biden said.
Biden also addressed the fight over voting rights in the U.S., what he called an “unprecedented assault on our democracy.” The president recalled a conversation with Rep. John Lewis, just hours before he died, when the Georgia Democrat told Biden the right to vote was “precious, almost sacred.” The president said voting rights groups must redouble efforts to educate and enroll voters.
“Earlier 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,” Biden said Tuesday. “The House is also working on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is critical to providing new legal tools to combat the assault on the right to vote.”
Biden then announced that he had tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration’s charge for voting rights legislation.
“With her leadership and your support, we’re going to overcome again, I promise you,” the president said. “But it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work.”
Biden ended his speech on an optimistic note about a new generation of young people, who he said are the “most educated,” “least prejudiced” and “most open generation in American history.”
His last words paraphrased Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Cure at Troy,” what he said should be the call today for America’s youth.
“It says 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,” Biden said. “Let’s make it rhyme.”
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