To The Brink

Last night I was reading a book about Route 66, the legendary highway that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The author reached Tulsa Oklahoma on page 132 and took a picture of a monument.

Inscribed on the monument was: 1921 Black Wall Street Memorial … and a list of names.

The accompanying paragraph read: “Outside the Greenwood Cultural Center, a somber marker bears witness to the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. Whites stormed the neighborhood, killing more than 300, burning 36 square blocks, and herding more than 6,000 people into a nearby stadium. Recent investigations have discovered mass graves in the area that may push the number of the dead even higher.”

I couldn’t get my head around the numbers … more than 300 people dead, 6,000 people rounded up, 36 square blocks of homes and businesses burned? I put the book down, went to The Internet, and Googled further.

Although official counts put the number of dead at 39 … 26 black, 13 white, it is generally accepted that this number is substantially higher, especially among black victims … Based on the evidence available, the actual number of black citizens believed to be killed during the riot may be around 300.

Of the some 800 people admitted to local hospitals for injuries, a vast majority are believed to have been white, as both black hospitals had been burned in the rioting. … Several among the black dead were known to have died while in the internment centers.

From the evening of May 31st, to the afternoon of June 1, 1921, more Americans killed fellow Americans in the Tulsa riot than probably anytime since the Civil War. … Rumors still persist that hundreds, not dozens, of people were killed and that bodies were crudely buried in mass graves, stuffed into coal mines and tossed into the Arkansas River. If so, the Tulsa race riot would go down as the worst single act of domestic violence on U. S. soil since the Civil War; worse than the 1965 Watts riot, the 1967 Detroit riot, the 1992 Los Angeles riot and the 1995 Oklahoma city bombing.

As I read, I tried to imagine what it must have been like when families fled for their lives as whites went on a killing, burning rampage. What was it like to have thousands of your neighbors spontaneously and collectively … snap … and turn on you in a murderous rage because of the color of your skin? What was it like for the survivors to return after losing everything and try to rebuild a new life while still living next to a people who had gone insane and tried to wipe them out? What was it like to live in America during the 1920’s when the Ku Klux Klan membership was 15% of the nation’s eligible population?

Then I thought, Why Don’t I know About This? But then … Why Should I Know About This. I’m a white man who grew up in White America, went to White Schools, and read White History. I went to school for 16 years and still didn’t know about one of the most horrific events in American History.

George Santayana said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But … don’t we have to learn our history first?

James Loewen established in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, that we can read American History books cover to cover and still be historically illiterate.

Loewen writes, “Textbooks keep students in the dark about the nature of history…[They] employ such a godlike tone, it never occurs to most students to question them … As a result of this, most high school seniors are hamstrung in their efforts to analyze controversial issues in our society”

We study our history by reading the stories of American historical figures as heroes.

We all learned in school how Helen Keller was blind and deaf from infancy. When she was 10 years old, aided by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she bravely overcame her disabilities. By the age of 24, Keller graduated from Radcliffe, magna cum laude, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

And as far as American textbooks are concerned … The End.

What we’re not taught is Helen Keller’s life after she dropped out of our textbooks.

She was a suffragist, a pacifist, a radical socialist, supported birth control, and helped found the ACLU. Keller and her friend Mark Twain were both considered radicals in the socio-political context in the United States and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over.

We live in Historical Times but without a Historical Context. What happened today is going to shape our immediate future. The house passed the Steny Hoyer/FISA bill today. It now goes to the Senate for debate next week. The Vichy Democrats, collaborating with The Bush Regime, have brought this country closer to the brink of totalitarian madness.

We’ve been there before … and we’ve always turned back. But as stock brokers are compelled to tell us … Past performance does not necessarily predict the future.

From Ted Rall’s recent article at

Deranged leaders who carry out horrific acts of mass murder and oppression with the consent of the people are hardly new to American history, reminds Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States. “Begin with the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s … Move forward to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early Republic, and from there to the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Turn then to the arbitrary political arrests of the First and Second World Wars, the many abuses of the Cold War McCarthy era, and from there the civil liberties climate in our time.”

… But those are temporary excesses, Weinstein reassures. “Self-corrective forces at work in American society” … lefties, liberals, a single swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court — always pull us back before we careen off the brink. Disaster is avoided.

We have seen hundreds of My Lai villagers murdered in a ditch … Thousands of Black Americans trying to escape from insane white mobs in Tulsa … Atrocities committed in our name in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in secret detention centers scattered around the globe.

Yes … we have always pulled back before we go “too far” … But oh the damage we do before we stop.

To The Brink June 20, 2008


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