The Secret Massacre

This week there have been so many topics of intense interest to focus on that it was difficult to determine which should appear in this space.

I had to think for some time about whether to write about the newest immigration demands of the Trump Administration, or the sexual crimes of Harvey Weinstein, or the real meaning of the 2nd Amendment after calls for more gun control.

Of course the Las Vegas shooting of 58 people, the wounding of over 500 concertgoers and the death of 59 people in total ultimately demanded a comment.

Stephen Paddock opened fire in Las Vegas, Nevada. October 1, 2017
My initial reaction, beyond the terrible shock at the loss of innocent life, was to notice that reports of the total loss of life deliberately leave out the shooter’s death. His obvious mental illness, which every comment and report asserted without question, did not include the loss of the shooter to the mental illness that claimed 58 other innocents.

This struck me as symptomatic of how mental illness is misunderstood in our culture.

We blame the victim of mental illness for contracting the illness, even though it is unimaginable to blame a  breast cancer victim for their disease.

The cultural hypocrisy caught my attention.

But this post is not about mental illness.

This post is not about gun control.

This post is about the worst massacre in American History.

And the worst massacre in American history was not in Las Vegas.

Nevertheless one might be led to believe that this was the worst event ever. The media was swamped all week with reports of the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.

CNN reported:

“The Las Vegas attack is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.”

Fox News offered this biline:

“The Las Vegas massacre Sunday night … the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.”

Breitbart went so far as to report:

“Live Updates: America Mourns, Searches for Answers After Historic Las Vegas Shooting.”

These headlines are designed for sensational reactions. The media is an important aspect of history, as it is sometimes a cause of events and other times it serves as a resource to understand what happened in history.

“This is the worst!”

“This is unprecedented!”

“This is a senseless act without meaning!”

“There can’t be any answer for why this happened.”

Knowing a little about history, however, can help to make sense of these headlines. If one knows about the constant culture of violence that America has always maintained, the shootings in Las Vegas take on a different place in the context of this violence.

The answer can be derived from knowing our history of violence. The answer might be surprising.

With that being stated, the worst massacre in American history is also a forgotten massacre.

It is an invisible act of violence, forgotten to the history books and left unremembered in history classes.

The Tulsa World announces
the Tulsa Race Riot
The worst massacre in American History, in my estimation, is the Tulsa Race Riot, May 31 through July 1, 1921,  when white Tulsans went on a three day rampage, killing 300 African Americans, injuring 800 people and arresting more than 6,000 African American residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

10,000 African Americans were left homeless by the white rampage, and damage to personal property has been estimated at $30 million dollars in 2017 valuation.

The years leading up to the massive violence of 1921 gives an image of the cultural racism that laid the groundwork for the Tulsa Riot. The Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa writes:

Post-World War I northeastern Oklahoma had a racially and politically tense atmosphere. The territory, which was declared a state on November 16, 1907, had received many settlers from the South who had been slaveholders before the American Civil War.

In the early 20th century, lynchings were common in Oklahoma, as part of a continuing effort by whites to assert and maintain white supremacy.

Between the declaration of statehood and the Tulsa race riot 13 years later, 31 persons were lynched in Oklahoma; 26 were black and nearly all were men and boys. During the twenty years following the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two.

A victim of white violence
Tulsa, 1921
The Tulsa Race Riot was the culmination of building racial tensions between whites and African Americans. The success of the African American community was a source of great animosity in a state and a nation where laws limited the possibility of African American economic advancement.

Known as The Black Wall Street, the African American community of Tulsa represented how successful African Americans could be when allowed to pursue their freedom like white Americans.
Eventually, this economic competition meant that it upset the racial hierarchy of America, where whites are guaranteed superiority over African Americans. This serves to maintain the economic structure of society, because as long as poor whites were better than some other group then they would not feel the need  to rise up against the higher economic white classes.
During the Tulsa Race Riot, whites rampaged through what was the most economically prosperous African American community in the United States.
The Black Wall Street in Tulsa upset that traditional racial structure. When a suitable, traditional cause could arise, then the racial structure would be reinstituted.
The Greenwood Cultural Center describes the initial cause of the Tulsa Race Riot in this way:
Renberg's Department Store.jpg
The Drexel Building,
South Main Street
Sometime around or after 4 pm, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of the nearby Drexel Building, at 319 South Main Street, to use the top-floor restroom, which was restricted to blacks.
He encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator who was on duty. The two likely knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a washroom that Rowland had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building.
A clerk at Renberg’s, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel, heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building.
The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he said was a distraught state.
Thinking she had been assaulted, he summoned the authorities.
The 2000 official commission report notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working downtown on Memorial Day, when most stores and businesses were closed.
It suggests that Rowland had a simple accident, such as tripping and steadying himself against the girl, or perhaps they were lovers and had a quarrel.
Tulsa burning 
The riot was set off by a traditional cause, the defense of white womanhood. The lynching of African Americans in American history has traditionally been sparked by white outrage over the crossing of racial barriers meant to preserve white superiority in a racial hierarchy.
White Tulsa policemen were seen by eyewitnesses in the white mob, and National Guardsmen fired machine guns into the African American communities.
One eyewitness, Greenwood attorney Buck Colbert Franklin described watching a dozen airplanes, dispatched by the Tulsa police forces dropping burning balls of turpentine onto rooftops in African American homes in Tulsa.
Ta-nehisi Coates recently described this white racism, masquerading as defense of law and order in his article in The Atlantic magazine:
Indeed, in the era of lynching, the daily newspapers often whipped up the fury of the white masses by invoking the last species of property that all white men held in common—white women.
But to conceal the breadth of white racism, these racist outbursts were often disregarded or treated not as racism but as the unfortunate side effect of legitimate grievances against capital.
By focusing on that sympathetic laboring class, the sins of whiteness itself were, and are still being, evaded.
Coates description speaks to both the cause of the Tulsa Race Riot and our current silent confusion surrounding the Las Vegas massacre.
To understand these murderous acts we need to consider how our cultural perspective allows us to ignore the root causes of these killings, seeing instead a country we wish we had.
Today this nation is like the drunk man searching for his keys under a streetlamp, knowing that they are somewhere else in a dark alley but looking only where the light allows him to search.

The Streetlight Effect
We do not want to cast our eyes where it is difficult to see. We reject any suggestion that does not align with our preconceived views on race and guns and America.
We are guilty by a large measure of confirmation bias.
We do not want to see how our cultural bias towards groups identified as other than American, or other than us as individuals, represents something to be feared; something to be fought against and to be killed if necessary.
The killings in Las Vegas do not have an obvious racial cause, as the concert was largely attended by whites, and featured country music, a genre largely supported by a white fanbase.
To understand the connection between these two massacres we need to focus on how guns and race and alienation are intertwined.
Las Vegas shows how this culture of fear has transformed into a culture of mass violence where race is no longer the guiding mantra for killing.
Race is a created social dimension. It is not a scientific element. Race is created to divide and protect elements of society fearful of “the other.”
Today the fear of other means anyone.
Guns have moved from maintaining white supremacy economically, politically and socially to maintaining personal protection from anyone or any group perceived as wrong or threatening. The shooter in Las Vegas was deeply disturbed.
The shooter in Las Vegas undeniably saw his victims as lesser than and a threat to his world in some disturbed manner. The world at large became the enemy. Guns represented outrage and revenge against that threatening world at large.
Whites rounding up African Americans
during the Tulsa Race Riot
The outrage by whites in history meant the deaths of innocent African Americans at the hands of white mobs, some in police uniform and some in military uniform.
The Tulsa Race Riot  offers evidence of this history of systemic violence.
Martin Hughes of the website Patheos writes:
Police officers and law enforcement were involved; the sheriff even, according to a book written by Alfred Brophy, a (white) Professor of Law at Chapel Hill, would deputize citizens to further license them to terrorize the black area.  
As the white people ransacked and set fire to 35 entire city blocks, turning them into ruins and doing today’s equivalent of 21 million dollars worth of damage, Governor Roberts finally sent in the National Guard.  Which began arresting people.
A young boy carries his younger brother in Tulsa.
Black People.
In Tulsa, African Americans threatened the status of whites as superior to blacks.
In Las Vegas, the world represented a threat to the shooter on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay.
In Tulsa, the violence was organized by large groups of whites, acting in unison against large groups of African Americans.
Today the mass violence is organized by individuals, but the frequency of the violence represents a broad symptom of alienation that is manifested randomly. The systemic nature of racial violence and mass killings makes them connected when we identify the cause as fear and alienation in American life.
A culture of violence and alienation sits at the root of the problem causing these recurring massacres.Until our political leadership names this problem, we will continue to discuss alterations to gun laws like so many chairs being rearranged on the deck of the Titanic. We are not yet able to speak of the cause of this cultural illness. We as a people continue to debate the symptoms.
In terms of the Tulsa Massacre, there was also an eerie silence about the killings. Despite the obvious public spectacle of African Americans being shot in the streets by whites, police and the military for defending themselves from white justice, the history of this event is largely ignored.
The dead were even hidden from history, buried in mass unmarked graves.
Whites burning African American homes in Tulsa.
During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and covered over with dirt.

The event was deliberately forgotten for decades afterwards.

It is as if the devastation was too great to acknowledge. Tulsa had a form of post traumatic stress disorder. The violence was so extreme that the survivors refused to relieve it, ascribing it to silence in hopes it would be forgotten.
Today our collective memory of mass shootings follows a similar tradition of silence. Most of us would be hard pressed to list the last five major mass shooting events. With no reaction to these historical events, they lose any power to inform and guide us to a better way in the future.
The Tulsa survivors eventually went to court to demand compensation for the destruction of their property. The legal result was symptomatic of how justice works in a society designed to defend white supremacy:
“The federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit, citing the statute of limitations had been exceeded on the 80-year-old case.The state requires that civil rights cases be filed within two years of the event. The court did not rule at all on the issues. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the appeal.”
To many this would be the sad but understandable end of the story. If the statute of limitations expired then it was the fault of the Tulsa African American community for not bringing the suit earlier.
Most would never imagine that it was not possible for the victims of this attack to meet the requirements of the statute of limitations.
Jim Crow laws denied African Americans the ability to receive a fair trial in American courts.
The law, therefore allows for whites to move on, without having to be exposed to racial responsibility, comforted by the excuse that it was the fault of the victims of this massacre for not acting sooner.
The current laws regarding guns allows for a similar blindness to history.

The one consensus answer that has come from the Las Vegas shooting is that there will be no change in guns or violence in the future.

The massacre in Las Vegas, like the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado and the massacre in Charlotte , South Carolina and the massacre in Orlando, Florida, and so many others it becomes sickening to list them all, will only continue until they become so commonplace that we accept the violence with the same acceptance that we once accepted the lynching of African Americans as normal.

Knowledge of history can awaken us to the commonalities of violence in our shared past. History can help us to see the forest for the trees. Knowing our history can also help to guide us to a better future, where the violence of Las Vegas and Tulsa are remembered and not forgotten.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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