Although I’m a college graduate and have read a pile of history over the years, including actually wading through the 1,700 pages or so of William Shirer’s classic tome on Nazi despotism, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I’m constantly reminded of all the important, even essential, historical events I know nothing or virtually nothing about.
For example, in last week’s runup to President Trump’s ill-advised (on many levels) campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I finally learned what “Juneteenth” was, being only vaguely aware of the term but none of its essential historical context for many years. And I also learned for the first time last week about the term “Black Wall Street,” which referred to the prosperous African-American neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa that was burned to the ground in 1921 by less-prosperous local white malcontents, who also reportedly murdered 300 local blacks that night in a fit of mayhem fueled by hate, racism and material envy.
The prominent African-American magazine Ebony described the horrible event in a 2013 article:
“During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”
The suddenly homeless Greenwood residents were then impounded in internment camps. Many never returned to their community. It had all reportedly begun when a white woman accused a black Greenwood man of sexual assault, which apparently gave authorities what they felt was sufficient pretext to invade the neighborhood.
I only began to learn of these things because our manifestly white supremacist, racist president decided to hold a campaign rally specifically in a city with one of the nation’s most disturbing racial legacies — the 1921 “Black Wall Street” massacre. And he initially decided to hold it on “Juneteenth,” long celebrated by African-Americans on June 19, the day Union Troops secured Galveston, Texas, from the Confederacy and declared the state’s black slaves free and equal to their white overlords and to every other citizen.
Keep in mind that the formal expatriation in Galveston occurred two and a half years after President Lincoln (who had since been assassinated) signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Justice can be slow.
The history of these two events suddenly erupted last week from “Black Lives Matter” protesters around the country, and journalists who reported on the outrage and dug deeper for historical context that many, except black editors and reporters, likely knew nothing about beforehand.
Trump acted like it was all a big surprise — although his relentless racist tweets and behavior and hate-baiting before and during his first term implied otherwise — and he grudgingly rescheduled the rally for the following day.
Trump’s descent into Tulsa was awful by this context alone, but we shouldn’t forget that it was also in the context of the spiking coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and unanimous urging of public-health professionals that holding a rally with tens of thousands of supporters was an irresponsibly dangerous idea.
But, ironically, because of the president’s incompetent, self-serving and slow-walking handling of his government’s pandemic response, which arguably resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands infected by the disease, and his heavy-handed response to police-brutality protests in the last several weeks, he felt he immediately needed a rally to jack-up the enthusiasm of his eroding base.
As always, he was clearly hoping to get away with it, because no one of consequence would hold him accountable, like in his impeachment.
Which is a very long and round-about way of getting to the point of this post: the steep downside of America’s vaunted free-speech rights and the difficulty of promoting and protecting truth publicly.
The reason few Americans before the past several weeks knew about “Black Wall Street” and “Juneteenth” is that Juneteenth was long methodically downplayed and unmentioned in history textbooks in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S., and white authorities in Tulsa tried literally to expunge information about the event by scrubbing news archives and other repositories of historical reportage. They were so successful in Tulsa that today it’s difficult to find any hard historical evidence on what happened on the day of May 31, 1921, and the night of June 1. Events unreported effectively never happen, and their lack of evidence becomes evidence of their apparent absense.
Michelle Norris, a Washington Post reporter who founded the Race Card Project to catalogue the experience of Americans regarding race issues, explained why the history of the attack on Greenwood is so thin.
“[Tulsa authorities today] still don’t know how many people died. They still have not been able to quantify the loss of income, the loss of property. And it’s hard to put that together because the history was expunged. There was actually a concerted effort to erase the history, and that’s changed. The city of Tulsa has leaned into this now, is trying to understand that history, is trying to find where the bodies were buried. But for years, newspaper archives were removed. Police logs were removed. So it’s been very hard for historians to go back and piece together what happened.”
So, as most white Americans remain blissfully ignorant of the full historical horror of racism in the U.S., mainly toward blacks, we have a president who capitalizes on that obliviousness to manipulate people into believing what is not true or right. For example, COVID-19 is fading away. And that blacks are thriving in the Trump economy (and are hugely better served by him than any other president).
Since his first day in office, the president has publicly issued more than 18,000 demonstrable, confirmable lies to the American people, according to the Washington Post’s resolute Fact Checker team. The problem is that there seems to be no governmental mechanism besides elections to stop him from lying, unless Congress decides to do the right thing (which they refused to do in his impeachment). Free speech, it seems, has a fatal cost.
However, there is one possible remedial mechanism for punishing the mendacity of public officials: commercial pressure.
Twitter recently has flagged a Trump tweet as promoting violence and disabled an outrageous doctored video tweet he hideously misappropriated to appear to show a “racist” black toddler chasing a white boy. The actual video showed the two boys running toward each other for a gleeful hug.
Facebook, on the other hand, continues to mumble something toothless about free speech (but companies have started making noise about boycotting Facebook ads, which is the tech giant’s lifeblood). Anyone who thinks more speech is always the best antidote to hateful or purposely false speech is dreaming. More speech generally just gives us more bad speech. There simply needs to be more stringent speech guidelines, as they have in England and elsewhere, and more unavoidable accountability.
Responsibility should be the only cost of free speech, and we shouldn’t each be able to decide what that means (because far too many of us have shown we have no idea). Accountability requires laws to fairly and honestly guarantee everyone’s rights.
If you think what Trump does is what free speech is all about, that risking people’s lives and livelihoods — and trashing national honor — for vanity is OK, then you make my argument for me.
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