Letter from the US: Racism's long history

July 17, 1996

Letter from the US. By Barry Sheppard

Racism's long history

By Barry Sheppard

Imagine this scenario: A 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, works as a shoe-shine "boy" in a high-rise department store. He takes a break to go to the "coloured" bathroom, and has to take an elevator to get there.

As he steps into the elevator, he accidentally bumps a young white woman. She yells, and things being what they are, the young man runs away. The police later capture him.

The local paper, the Tulsa Tribune, screams in its front page headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" and reports that an angry group of whites are gathering to lynch the man. The paper's editorial inflames whites to join the lynch mob.

Understanding what could happen, a group of armed black men converge on the local jail. The sheriff assures the armed blacks that he will not allow the white mob to lynch the suspect.

The blacks leave the jailhouse only to be confronted by the lynch mob. A white man attempts to disarm one of the blacks. From eyewitness reports, this was a rather short white man, and the black he tried to intimidate was over six feet (182 cm). Apparently the white thought, just because he was white, he could intimidate any black.

What happens next is a scuffle that quickly turns into an armed conflict. Hand to hand combat ensues. The outnumbered blacks retreat, firing and fighting, towards the black ghetto.

The white mob grows as news of the fighting spreads. House-to-house fighting develops in the ghetto. Blacks are a minority in the city, and are militarily defeated. The victorious mob then goes on a murderous rampage, killing black men, women and children, and burns the entire ghetto down. Those blacks who survive flee the fighting.

A history of the conflict printed in 1982, but largely unknown, by historian Scott Ellsworth, said black deaths probably approached 100 but might have been much higher. Black bodies were buried in two local potter's fields.

This battle occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. A survivor, Robert Fairchild, now 92, remembers fleeing the ghetto at 5am with his mother as crowds of white men with torches and guns swept through, while armed blacks fought back.

George Monroe, 80, remembers hiding under a bed with his two sisters and a brother while four white men broke in. "They went straight to the curtains of the house and set them afire", he reports.

"As they walked past the bed, one of the men stepped on my finger. As I went to scream, my older sister, Lottie, put her hand over my mouth. That's something I will never forget." He and his family fled. But their house and their business, a roller-skating rink, were burned down.

Knowledge of these events was suppressed. Only this year has the city of Tulsa officially recognised that they occurred. In the city library, all articles about the battle were cut out of the Tulsa Tribune, as was the inflammatory editorial. No copies of this editorial exist.

There are two reasons for this long suppression of news of the battle. One is that the white ruling class in the city wanted to cover up the criminal mass killing they helped to provoke. The other is that they wanted to keep quiet about the heroic armed defence the black community put up. This was a dangerous example for blacks elsewhere, from their viewpoint.

After the pogrom was over, the police and the woman in the elevator both said that Dick Rowland never attacked her, that he just stumbled into her and inadvertently stepped on her toes, and she cried out. Charges were dropped.

How could the white mob be so incensed that it could carry out the brutal crimes it committed?

Many lynchings of blacks in the Jim Crow South resulted from allegations that a black man had "raped" a white woman. Often, these cases were really about a voluntary liaison between a black man and a white woman; if they were found out, the woman was under intense pressure to claim she was "raped".

I think the best thing that has been written to explain the psychology behind such occurrences is Wilhem Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism. He develops the idea that the ruling classes, and oppressor nationalities, project onto the "inferior" people a more intense sexuality than exists among the more privileged group. Since the men of the higher class or "race" regularly sexually exploit women of the "inferior" class or race, they project onto the men of the "lower" classes and races a desire for revenge.

And they think that "their" women are more attracted to these presumably sexier men, and so fear these men as rivals.

Read Reich for a more developed explanation, in which he ties this phenomenon into the protection of private property.

The victory of the civil rights movement of the 1950s-70s has curtailed the kind of violence of 1921 Tulsa. But racism is still deep in this country and in the psyches of many of its white citizens, in both the north and the south.

A recent example occurred in New York City. A bunch of white cops off duty were drinking in a fashionable bar, when a group of young blacks came in. One of the young blacks, Shane Daniels, was escorting a young white woman.

When the blacks and white woman left, the cops came charging out, yelling racist epithets, and while one cop held the other blacks at bay with his drawn gun, another cop beat Daniels on the head with a steel bar. Daniels remains in a coma.

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