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In Centennial Year, Race Massacre Front Of Mind For Many On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Youtube / City of Norman
Phil Armstrong (left), project manager for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, speaking during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day interfaith breakfast in Norman on Monday as an American Sign Language interpreter translates.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day events in Oklahoma were noticeably impacted by two unique circumstances Monday.

"Every year, usually ... they have the marching groups. Next year, we'll be back with the walking groups, with the dancing groups," said Tulsa's MLK Day Parade emcee Rebecca Marks-Jimerson, doing color commentary for a livestream of the event. "But this year, because of the COVID, we are doing the social distancing. But we're making it happen for you."

Bands and other marchers were kept from the route due to the pandemic, and in-person spectators were discouraged and directed to TV broadcasts and the livestream. 

In addition to the necessity for virtual events due to the pandemic, though, the holiday also comes in the 100th year since the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, with that racist attack top of mind as remembrances and commemorations have already begun.

At the parade, Tulsa's All Souls Unitarian Church flew a "REPARATIONS NOW" banner from their vehicle for survivors and descendants of the massacre.

In a keynote address at the City of Norman's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Interfaith Breakfast, held virtually, Phil Armstrong, project manager for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said it's imperative to face uncomfortable truths from the past in order to make progress.

"When you face difficult pasts, you will find that most people will not want to face it with you. It's not always because they don't agree -- many times, in my experience with difficult history, it is because it is very uncomfortable," Armstrong said. "Ultimately, we are dealing with the consequences of decisions that were made and acted upon long before we were here, yet the effects of those morally unjustifiable decisions shroud us still."

"We, as Oklahomans, must face together that the worst tragedy of racist violence in our nation's history, the Tulsa Race Massacre that occurred from May 31st through June 2nd, 1921, occurred 100 years ago in this year," Armstrong said, before going onto read from and explain Dr. King's famous "drum major instinct" sermon given two months before his assassination in 1968.

"Basically, King was advising all of his listeners to think about the importance of living a life not in vain, for doing the right thing not so you will get recognition, but so you can truly be a contributor to society without asking or wondering what you will get out of it or what you will get in return," Armstrong said. 

At an MLK Day symposium for young African American men hosted virtually by Tulsa Community College, academic success coach Michael Singleton said the attack on Greenwood and, more importantly, the aftermath, could serve as inspiration today.

"We want to acknowledge the courage, the tenacity, the persistence of our ancestors, right?" Singleton said. "How they watched their successful community be burnt to the ground, yet through all the barriers, setbacks and deliberative efforts to keep this community down, they persisted to rebuild their community."

"This persistence and tenacity of our ancestors still lives in us today," Singleton said. "And we want to honor them by continuing to build this community. Education is key in helping us honor our ancestors."

Community organizer and 2020 Tulsa mayoral candidate Greg Robinson also spoke to the TCC students about the successes Black Tulsans achieved in the face of hate and adversity in 1921 and the years to follow.

"As I think about where we are now, and think about being 100 years from the massacre within our very own community in Greenwood, I always reflect back not on the terror and the horror of that moment, but what came after," Robinson said. 

"It is the turning point of what happens when community comes together, and when they say we're not going to be destroyed by what's holding us back but we are going to be given life by what we can do together," Robinson said. 

"As we sit in 2021, with the racial disparities that still exist in this city, with the inequities that exist that all of you are living every day," Robinson said, "if we are going to turn that around, if we are going to, as our people have always done, become better out of the things that are holding us back, it's not going to be because somebody else came in and told us what to do. It's not going to be because somebody else came in and was our savior.

"It's going to be because we come together as a community, listen to each other, form a plan and then go forth with fidelity until that is done. And I will tell you that we have always been successful when we do that."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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