Political

Biden delivers remarks on Tulsa Race Massacre after meeting with survivors

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(TULSA, Okla.) — President Joe Biden is in Tulsa, Oklahoma to mark the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, becoming the first sitting president to visit the historic Greenwood neighborhood to talk about the deadly racial attack.

Biden first toured the Greenwood Cultural Center and privately met with survivors ahead of remarks in which he announced new actions his administration is taking to narrow the racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

Biden was introduced by Lauren Usher, a descendent of a Tulsa Race Massacre victim. The living survivors — aged 101 to 107 — looked on for his speech.

“You are the three known remaining survivors of a story seen in the mirror dimly. But no longer. Now, your story will be known in full view,” Biden began.

He acknowledged that the history of the attack has been whitewashed and overlooked in the past 100 years — made evident by the fact, he said, that he is the first president to visit Greenwood.

“Just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing,” he said. “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.”

During the earlier tour, Biden engaged in some back-and-forth with the museum’s coordinator, saying at one point, “It wasn’t a riot, it was a massacre.”

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge, domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and senior adviser Cedric Richmond, joined Biden for his meeting with the three living members of the Greenwood community who survived the massacre: Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle.

All three testified before Congress last month, calling for reparations. Last year, they filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and others demanding compensation for what they called the ongoing “public nuisance” inflicted on them and other families for decades following the attack.

Biden’s remarks will “shine a light” on the tragedy 100 years later, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One en route to Tulsa.

“Frankly, he plans to discuss his shared sense of frustration and pain that justice has been denied to these families for so long,” she said.

She continued, “He will explain that we need to know our history from the original sin of slavery through the Tulsa Race Massacre to racial discrimination in housing in order to build common ground, to truly repair and rebuild.”

On the evening May 31, 1921, and into the following day, a mob or armed, white men descended on the all-Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, destroying 35 blocks of the neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.”

With members of law enforcement of government employees working against Black residents, the state of Oklahoma recorded only 36 deaths, but a 2001 commission reported the number killed was as high as 300. The commission found an estimated $1.8 million in damages — renewing calls for reparations — which would come out to more than $25 million in 2021. As many as 10,000 residents were displaced or put in internment camps after the massacre was painted as a “riot” to prevent Black businesses from collecting on insurance claims.

Upon deplaning Tuesday, Biden took photos with several local officials, including Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and leaders from several Tribal Nations.

The president is slated to propose a broader agenda to address racial inequities beyond Tulsa in his remarks — starting with atoning for the federal government.

New steps the administration wants to take include directing more federal contracts to small and minority-owned businesses, expanding access to homeownership and launching infrastructure-programs intended to repair neighborhoods like Greenwood.

But the NAACP and other civil rights groups are criticizing Biden for not including steps to reduce student loan debt — one of the biggest obstacles preventing Black Americans from accumulating wealth, advocates say.

“Student loan debt continues to suppress the economic prosperity of Black Americans across the nation,” Derrick Johnson, the NAACP president, said in a statement. “You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.”

Asked by ABC News White House correspondent Karen Travers about the omission on Tuesday, Jean-Pierre pivoted from the question by talking about the president’s proposal to invest in historically Black colleges and universities as part of his American Families Plan.

“These institutions are critical to helping underrepresented students move to the top of the income ladder,” she said. “President Biden is calling for a historic investment in affordability through subsidized tuition and expanding institutional — and grants.”

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