Joe Biden has used the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre as a rallying cry for America to be honest about its history, insisting that great nations “come to terms with their dark sides”.
On Tuesday Biden became the first sitting US president to visit the site where, on 31 May and 1 June 1921, a white mob murdered up to 300 African Americans and burned and looted homes and businesses, razing a prosperous community known as “Black Wall Street”.
In an emotional speech punctuated by intense applause, Biden pleaded for America to confront its past and admit that a thread of hatred runs from Tulsa through more recent displays of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the US Capitol in Washington on 6 January.
He also drew a connection to a Republican assault on the voting rights of people of colour and announced that Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour to serve as vice-president, would lead the White House effort to resist it.
Biden began by speaking directly to the last three survivors of the massacre, centenarians Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle, who received a standing ovation from an audience of around 200 made up of survivors and their families, community leaders, and elected officials.
“You are the three known remaining survivors of a story seen in the mirror dimly but no longer,” said Biden, a comparatively youthful 78. “Now, your story will be known in full view.”
Knowledge of this violent attempt to suppress Black success in Greenwood, Tulsa, fell victim to a decades-long conspiracy of silence. The atrocity was not taught in schools, even in Tulsa, until the mid-2000s and was expunged from police records. Those who threatened to break to the taboo faced disapproval or death threats. Even many Black residents preferred not to burden their children with the story.
Biden said: “For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent it doesn’t mean that it did not take place and, while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried, no matter how hard people try. So it is here: only with truth can come healing and justice and repair.”
The argument was a striking contrast from his predecessor, Donald Trump, who promoted a heroic vision of American history. On the massacre’s 99th anniversary, Trump had posed with a Bible outside a historic church after security forces teargassed protesters outside the White House. He headed to Tulsa later that month for a campaign rally that breached coronavirus safety guidelines.
After studying an exhibition on this lost “boom town” at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Biden’s message appeared to be the opposite of “Make America great again” – an acknowledgment that America’s history includes slavery and segregation, and that only looking that fully in the face can allow it to move forward.
Challenging the language used to describe the one of the worst chapters in the country’s history of racial violence, the president followed a moment of silence with a pointed statement: “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.” The hush gave way to prolonged applause inside the room.
He went on: “Among the worst in our history. But not the only one and for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory, our collective memory…
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” he continued. “We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”
The president noted that, while Greenwood’s Black community recovered, it was marginalised again by housing “red lining” and urban renewal projects including highways – a pattern seen in many American cities.
He promised that his administration would address racism at its roots, expanding federal contracting with small, disadvantaged businesses, investing tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood and pursuing new efforts to combat housing discrimination.
Notably, Biden also used the platform to condemn efforts in recent months by Republican state legislators to impose voting restrictions – likely to have a disproportionate impact on people of colour – as a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy”.
Biden said he had asked Harris to lead his administration’s efforts to protect voting rights. “With her leadership and your support, we’re going to overcome again, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work,” he said.
Harris released a statement that noted almost 400 bills have been introduced at the state level since the last presidential election to make it more difficult for some people to vote. “The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” she said. “This is the work of democracy.”
Biden has made numerous policy speeches as president but the convergence of history, racial justice and the audience on Tuesday seemed to strike a particular chord in him. It was the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017 that moved him to end political retirement and run for president again.
“What happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism with the through-line that exists today still,” he said, prompting a cry of assent from the audience. “Just close your eyes and remember what you saw in Charlottesville four years ago on television.”
Biden added that Fletcher, 107, said the 6 January insurrection, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, “broke her heart” and “reminded her of what happened here in Greenwood a hundred years ago”. He noted that hate crimes continue to target Asian Americans and Jewish Americans.
“Hate’s never defeated. It only hides. It hides. And given just a little bit of oxygen by its leaders, it comes out from under the rock like it’s happening again, as if it never went away. So folks, we must not give hate a safe harbour.”