Mob Fury and Race Hatred as a National Danger

The Literary Digest/June 18, 1921

“THERE IS ONE PROBLEM in American life for which I foresee no solution. It is the race problem, the negro question.” These words of Grover Cleveland are recalled by the Louisville Courier- Journal in its editorial discussion of the sudden and appalling flare-up of mob fury and race hatred in Tulsa. In this Oklahoma city, which according to one of its journals “has the highest per-capita wealth of any city in the world,” the rumor that a colored boy was to be lynched brought a crowd of armed negroes to the jail to prevent it.

With the white mob and the black confronting one another, somebody fired a shot, and the result was a pitched battle with scores of casualties, the burning of the city’s negro section, and the addition, as the New York Evening Post remarks, of “a ghastly chapter to the record of a national disgrace.” For while the immediate cause of the Tulsa tragedy has been concisely described as “an impudent negro, an hysterical girl, and a yellow-journal reporter,” the conditions which provided the tinder for this spark are not peculiar to Tulsa or Oklahoma, but exist in varying degree, we are told, in all parts of the country where the negro is numerous enough to be a problem. According to the editor of a New York negro weekly, race war lies latent in many American cities, and “as for New York City, it is a magazine. All it needs is to have a fuse touched off.” The causes behind the Tulsa explosion and similar outbreaks of the last few years, editorial observers tell us, are: the lynch-law spirit, peonage, race prejudice, economic rivalry between blacks and whites, radical propaganda, unemployment, corrupt politics, and the new negro spirit of self-assertion. Among the remedies proposed are: new legislation, strict and impartial law enforcement, unionization of the negroes, and the Golden Rule.

“The Tulsa horror” moves the Kansas City Journal to reflect upon “the narrowness of the margin which separates civilization from savagery.” “We have in this country an ugly race problem, and to ignore it is only to postpone the reckoning,” declares the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has not forgotten the race war of four years ago in its neighbor city, East St. Louis, in which 125 persons were killed. This problem, the Post-Dispatch assures us, “can not be solved by riot, by burnings and killings.” “We are headed in this country toward a race conflict greater than the confines of a city — greater, perhaps, than a State,” declares The Star of the same city, which asks: “Are we going to keep on going in the direction in which we are headed?” “No community knows when it may be marred by similar outrages,” says the Oklahoma City Times, which is convinced that “the danger of racial disturbances is increased by the orgy of terrorism in Tulsa.” “It is not an issue of white vs. black, but it is an issue in which is involved the one true conception of government itself,” avers the Tulsa World. “Mob violence has become common, and if the tendency is not checked, one may not measure the depths of sorrow to come,” says the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Leader. “If the Tulsa collision had occurred at Vera Cruz the American people would have deplored the lawlessness of the Mexicans and found it shocking,” remarks the New York Times; and the Nashville Tennessean thinks that “the crime of Tulsa will make many of us hesitate before we condemn other races as being unqualified for self-government.” “This is not the first race riot within recent years to occur outside of the Mason-Dixon Line,” notes the Wilmington Every Evening, which recalls the following facts:

“In East St. Louis, Ill., which is distinctly a Northern city, 125 persons were killed on July 7, 1917. In Washington, D. C, seven persons were killed and scores injured in the riots which began July 19, 1919. A few days later, beginning July 26, in Chicago, which is certainly not a Southern city, 38 persons were killed and 500 wounded. On October 2, the same year, in Elaine, Ark. — which calls itself Midwestern — 30 persons were killed and hundreds were wounded in the street-fighting. Three days before that, in Omaha, Neb., which is certainly Western, three persons were killed in race riots and many wounded. The mayor of the city was hanged by rioters, but cut down in time to save his life.”

The guilt of the Tulsa tragedy, avers an outspoken Southern paper, the Dallas News, “attaches itself mostly to the white race”; and in the Emporia Gazette we read:

“Of course, it was not the best of the white race that created the hellish situation in Tulsa.

But none the less, the best of the white race is responsible. The leadership of a community is responsible for the deeds of the community.”

“No matter who kills the most, mobs are an indictment of all the citizens, and of the best citizens more than any of the others,” agrees The Call, a negro paper published in Kansas City; and it adds: “We maintain that it is white civilization that is on trial when negroes are persecuted, for it is the law as created by the Anglo-Saxon which is treated with contempt when our rights are overridden.” “We are wondering where is an Uncle Sam that will hear the cries of the innocent women and children at Tulsa,” exclaims another negro paper, the St. Louis Argus; and in still another, The Black Dispatch, of Oklahoma City, we read: “Whatever the issue, the fact remains undisputed that in Tulsa, in a white-man’s country, the negroes were attempting to uphold the law and white men were attempting to destroy it.”

The nation must awake to what lynch law and race riots are costing it, our press earnestly admonish us. This Tulsa horror will be featured in scare-heads in every newspaper in Mexico City, and will make it still harder for our State Department to convince the Mexicans that we are in deadly earnest about the protection of American life and property, remarks the Chicago Evening Post, which goes on to say: “At this moment we are withholding valuable aid to the Mexican Government because we doubt the safety of American life and property under its jurisdiction, but in Mexican eyes the Tulsa explosion will knock the high horse out from under us.” Moreover, it adds, such outbreaks “damage the United States more than we realize in the eyes of all foreign nations.” “Americans have been loud in the denunciation of the pogroms in Poland, of the massacres in Armenia and Russia and Mexico, and they were ready to go to war to avenge the victims of the barbarous German war-lords, but unless we can create a public sentiment in this country strong enough to restrain such intolerant outbreaks as Tulsa has just witnessed, we shall be unable in the future to protest with any moral weight against anything that may happen in less-favored parts of the world,” remarks the Houston Post, which warns us that “the race problem is not being solved in any part of the country.”

Tulsa’s outburst of race war “ was as unjustified as it was unnecessary,” remarks the Tulsa World. The events which made up this tragedy of errors are outlined by Walter F. White in a Tulsa dispatch to the New York Evening Post:

“The immediate cause of the riot was a white girl who claimed that Dick Rowland, a colored youth of nineteen, attempted to assault her. Sarah Page, the girl, operated an elevator in the Drexel Building in Tulsa. She said the colored boy had seized her arm as she admitted him to the car. Rowland declares that he stumbled and accidentally stepped on the girl’s foot. She screamed. Rowland ran. The following day the Tulsa Tribune told of the charge and the arrest of Rowland.

“Chief of Police John A. Gustafson, Sheriff McCullough, Mayor T. D. Evans, and a number of reputable citizens, among them a prominent oil operator, all declared that the girl had not been molested; that no attempt at criminal assault had been made. Victor F. Barnett, managing editor of the Tribune, stated that his paper had since learned that the original story that the girl’s face was scratched and her clothes torn was untrue.

“Soon after The Tribune appeared on the streets on Tuesday afternoon there was talk of a lynching mob ‘to avenge the purity of a white woman.’ Rowland was then removed to the county jail, located on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse, a substantial building of three stories. Sheriff McCullough stated to me that as early as four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon (the Tribune reached the streets with the story of the alleged assault at 3.15 p.m.), Commissioner of Police J. M. Adkison informed him that there was talk of lynching Rowland that night

“By nine o’clock there were from 300 to 400 whites around the courthouse. About 9.30 twenty-five negroes came up to the courthouse, armed to protect Rowland. The sheriff persuaded them to go home, but in an hour they returned, their number increased to seventy-five. The sheriff had again persuaded them to go home, when a shot was fired. Then, in the sheriff’s own words, ‘all hell broke loose.’

“Armed mobs of whites broke into hardware stores and pawnshops and looted them, taking weapons and ammunition. Colored men fought gamely, one of them accounting for five members of a mob that attacked the colored section. Near daybreak a pitched battle was in progress, with the ‘Frisco tracks as a dividing line between the two forces. Shortly afterward the white mobs, numbering by then more than 10,000, invaded the negro section, the colored men resisting determinedly. Cans of oil were secured and fires started. Firemen attempting to quench the first of these flames were fired upon and withdrew.”

Before martial law was established and peace restored by the National Guard more than a score of blacks and nearly half as many whites had lost their lives, more than 200 of both races were wounded, more than a million and a half dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, and thousands of negro families were homeless.

The Tulsa Tribune and World agree the trouble could have been nipped in the bud by decisive action on the part of the city authorities in dispersing the mob as soon as it began to form; and correspondents represent Gov. J. B. A. Robertson as sharing this view.

“Undoubtedly the trouble could have been arrested in its incipiency had prompt and intelligent action been taken by officials,” declares the Muskogee Phoenix; and The Times-Democrat of the same Oklahoma city agrees that “in Tulsa the law-enforcement branches were absolutely paralyzed in face of the riots for twenty-four hours.” “The accumulation of all the stories relating to the disaster clearly indicates that this is the culmination of a protracted disrespect for law in this city through a long period of time,” affirms the Tulsa Tribune.

But behind the immediate factors in the Tulsa outbreak editorial observers search for deeper causes. “One incident never causes a race riot; the causes accumulate for weeks and months before the outbreak,” remarks James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who goes on to say:

“If the stories told by refugees from Oklahoma are true, conditions virtually of slavery, similar to those laid bare recently by Governor Dorsey in Georgia, prevail in Oklahoma. Robbery of negro tenants, brutalities of every description, burning of homes, and enforced labor for a mere subsistence wage will inevitably bring about trouble.”

So long as the negro is denied in whole or in part the rights and immunities guaranteed him under the white-man’s law, “the way is open to the repetition of such tragedies as that which happened in Tulsa,” avers the New York World, in which we read further:

“Government ceased for the time being to exist and the streets of Tulsa ran with blood.

But in vast sections of the country government has a habit of ceasing to exist where the legal rights of the negro are concerned. Although white men are sometimes lynched when accused of crime the general presumption is that they will not be. Although black men are often not lynched when accused of crime, the general presumption in many parts of the United States is that they are likely to be. Out of that presumption came Tulsa’s race war.”

“The core of the situation is the existence of a latent spirit of lynching,” thinks the New York Evening Post. Of a changing attitude on the part of the negro, the New York Globe says:

“Because of his experiences as a soldier and on account of the higher value placed upon his labor during the war-period he has become less submissive. Whether for good or for evil, it is a fact that when attacked by white men he is more likely to shoot back than he was five years ago.”

The Socialist New York Call, after interviewing Mr. Chandler Owen, editor of The Messenger, on the Tulsa riot, reports that:

“A potent cause, Mr. Owen believes, is the recent wave of unemployment, which has hit white workers much harder than colored workers, for the simple reason that the negroes work for lower wages, and are therefore the last to be discharged. This has caused a great deal of resentment among the white workers, who accuse the negroes of taking away their jobs.”

“What was the underlying cause of the Tulsa riot?” asks the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which answers its own question as follows:

“The answer to that question not only explains this riot, but reveals a situation which threatens the peace of every community in the land where negroes and whites dwell together. To speak plainly, those negroes were not in their right senses. They were inflamed by a violent propaganda against the whites which negro radicals in Chicago, New York, and other points in the East have been carrying on since the armistice. Publications filled with denunciation of the white people of the South and with lurid descriptions of imaginary wrongs of the negro race have been spread throughout the South during the past two years and a half. The most extreme of them have preached violence, if not openly, covertly and by innuendo. These professional agitators, most of whom have found an easy way of making a living through this propaganda, have learned nothing for the consequences of their violent teachings. With reckless abandon they have used every possible method of inflaming the negroes in the South against the whites.

“The Tulsa riot is a direct result of the sullen and ugly discontent which these Eastern propagandists have been planting in the breasts of Southern negroes. It is among the ‘first fruits’ of their teachings. The homeless negroes of Tulsa who view the ruins of the results of their labor and who witnessed their relatives being killed in a furious riot, are the victims of this propaganda.”

“It is pretty generally known in Houston that hundreds, even thousands, of whites and blacks have procured firearms during the past two years,” says another Texas paper, the Houston Post, which goes on to say:

“It is time to talk plainly. The circumstance that there are large armed groups of whites and blacks, each expecting attack, in scores of Southern communities is something for sober citizens of both races to consider. To continue that state of affairs means but one thing, viz., that sooner or later the necessary spark to light the fires of hate will appear.”

The Indianapolis News thinks that there is much in the argument of the Chicago Tribune that corrupt polities is the real villain in the Tulsa tragedy and in other American race riots. Says the Chicago Tribune:

“If in Tulsa, Chicago, Springfield, or East St. Louis it were not for the profitable alliance of politics and vice or professional crime, the tiny spark which is the beginning of all these outrages would be promptly extinguished. We should have peace in our communities and the race issue would never reach the point of madness.

“Corrupt politics is directly responsible for race riots. Let us face that fact and not lose ourselves in secondary considerations. Race riots are not problems of race; they are problems of government. There will be no race riots where politics has not corrupted government.”