Tulsa Race Massacre: Second Deadliest Race Riot in US History (May 31, 1921)

The 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma were probably fed in part by the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic American white supremacist terrorist group.

Can an act of terrorism be ‘spontaneous’?

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – Terrorism is seen as an act of serious violence that seeks to promote an agenda, which can be religious, political, or ideological. As such, we usually assume that acts of terrorism take time to plan. Targets have to be chosen, materiel has to be acquired, surveillance or dry runs may have to be carried out to determine optimum time, and, of course, you have to find people willing to actually ‘do the deed’. This may be hard if the attack is a suicide one (wait, what??? You want ME to BE the bomb??).

But what if an act of serious violence for one (or several) of the aforementioned rationales takes place in a virtual heartbeat? What if the perpetrators simply get up and kill? Would this be deemed an act of terrorism? I am not so sure, but here goes an interesting example.

In 1921, a black teenager in Tulsa (Oklahoma) stepped into an elevator in a downtown building only to have the elevator operator (NB to anyone born after 1960, yes, there were once people who worked the elevator for you: I remember that the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa had one as late as the mid 1980s) scream bloody murder. The teen, Dick Rowland, ran from the scene only to be arrested. What followed was a massacre.

Dick Rowland

Assuming that the black man must have attempted to sexually assault the white girl, an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse, demanding the sheriff hand over Rowland, probably in order to lynch him (did you know that the verb ‘to lynch’ comes from an actual Judge Charles Lynch in 18th century revolutionary Virginia who apparently embraced a particular form of ‘justice’?).

Anger grew and by the evening of May 31 a mob grew, shots were fired and chaos broke out. Over the next several hours, groups of white Tulsans—some of whom were deputised and given weapons by city officials—committed numerous acts of violence against blacks, including shooting an unarmed man in a movie theater. The following day thousands of white citizens began looting and burning homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks. Firefighters who arrived to help put out fires later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.

The 1921 race riot in Tulsa , Oklahoma (second deadliest race riot in US history) were probably fed in part by the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic American white supremacist terrorist group.

When all was said and done it was officially noted that the violence took 36 lives: other estimates claim the death toll was as high as 300, with another 800 wounded. It was the second deadliest race riot in US history.

But was it terrorism?

I will venture a cautious guess and say…maybe. It is likely the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was involved and there is little doubt that particular group of cowardly bed sheet wearers is what the US government calls a ‘domestic terrorist group’. The violence was very severe and the motives were most definitely political/ideological, but probably not religious, notwithstanding the KKK’s penchant for burning crosses.

Of course the KKK and its admirers/followers are still with us, encouraged by a US president who feels there are ‘fine folks on both sides’. Racial tension is a social ill that never seems to completely go away. Sad.

Oh, by the way, Dick Rowland was released without charge.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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