The anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 is also recognized in June, and it is a reminder of both the importance and elusiveness of freedom for African Americans.
While the deadly assault and destruction of the prosperous black community known as Black Wall Street is perhaps the best-known race massacre, terrorist attacks on black freedom began shortly after the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. These attacks, often characterized as “race riots,” were ignited by false narratives based on unproven allegations by whites. The false stories all centered on physical aggression of black men against whites, and all proved to have deadly consequences.
The first documented race riot was in Memphis on May 1, 1866. For three days, white police officers, firemen and civilians murdered formerly enslaved black men, women and children. They pillaged the black community, raping at least five women and stealing money and valuables from people who had previously never been paid for a lifetime of work. They shot black women and children in their beds and burned down houses, schools and churches, sending survivors running for their lives.
It all began with the false claim that was perpetuated by the police that a black Union soldier had shot a policeman. In truth, the evidence collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau and a New York Times investigation revealed that a white police officer accidentally shot another white police officer in a scuffle with black Union soldiers.
The real, underlying cause of the riots was much deeper, however. A letter dated May 23, 1866, from Benjamin P. Runkle to Brig. Gen. Jemel C.B. Fish, a chief superintendent for the Freedmen’s Bureau, revealed how the “reign of terror” kept blacks “so frightened that they would not tell him who had been shot, hung, or unmercifully whipped.” For months before the riots, local Memphis newspapers had been raising false claims that “the negroes were all going to rise before Christmas.”
The Irish-heritage Memphis police force was angry at black Union soldiers who, since the war’s end, were able to congregate in public and carry their own weapons. In addition, hotel workers, mechanics and other white laborers came into competition with newly freed blacks for the same jobs. Runkle documented that the police and laborers were led to believe the teachings of the newspapers — that blacks were inferior beings and had no equal right to compete with them.
This clash of local government, law enforcement and the white laboring class with black Union soldiers resulted in a white-supremacist mob. Memphis City Recorder John C. Creighton incited people, urging them to arm themselves and to “kill every negro and drive the last one from the city.” And John Park, the mayor of Memphis, lost — or gave — control of his city to the white mob, failing to suppress the riot and restore peace. After it was over, no one was arrested for any of the crimes committed over those three days.
This brutality had one purpose: quashing the freedom of recently emancipated blacks. White police and officials used brutality and death to deliver a message: Stay in your place. You may be free, but you have no rights. You may be emancipated, but you have no individual or collective agency.
The Memphis riots were notable because they happened on the eve of the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment was intended to protect the rights of emancipated slaves as citizens and to ensure that the government would not take their lives, property or freedom without a fair trial or legal process, critical to protecting them against racist violence and bigoted state laws.
The Report on Memphis Riots and Massacres — which condemned the violence — was submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 18, 1866, just six weeks after congressional endorsement of the 14th Amendment. But even if the amendment had passed before the riots, it would have done little to prevent the bloodshed that occurred. The end of Reconstruction and the removal of federal troops from the South made the potential for this sort of racist violence worse.
History is rife with cases in which police officers and citizens killed black people while governing officials — who knew about the violence — stepped aside, did nothing or initiated and assisted in the slaughter: the Atlanta riots of 1906, which were triggered by a press report of four alleged attacks by black men on white women; the Chicago riots of 1919, which began with the drowning of a black 17-year-old who inadvertently ventured over to the “white side” of the lake; the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida, which commenced after a white woman falsely claimed that a black man had assaulted her; and the Elaine Massacre in 1919, which was prompted after a rumor that black sharecroppers were leading a violent insurrection against white residents.
At the root of the annihilation of multiple black communities in tandem is the suppression of the full embodiment of black freedom. Today we may not think that race massacres still occur. But the connections between emancipation, anger over black economic advancement and state violence against the black community that were present during Reconstruction are still present today. This white rage is illustrated by the deliberate destruction of black lives through a variety of means.
The painful truth is that freedom, wealth and power for whites has been built on the inhumane treatment of African Americans throughout history. Freedom in America was built on the stereotype of the black man as a violent criminal; on separating and destroying black families; on preventing black people from learning how to read or write; on preventing blacks and women from being able to vote; on imprisoning and disenfranchising black men and women; on preventing black families from being able to live in certain neighborhoods; on providing unequal education in most black communities both pre- and post-integration; on banks denying loans to black businesses; and on stamping out any growth of wealth in black communities.
This web of withholding and snatching away of opportunities from African Americans operates in the same way that the race massacres did after Juneteenth. The physical, emotional and financial toll of the damage is generational and ongoing. The most recent racial killings — the slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the scapegoating of Christian Cooper — vividly depict the most violent ways that freedom is taken away from black people. The false narrative of white supremacy sets forth that black lives don’t matter. And it is also the reason the protests for justice and liberty will continue.