In April 1997, Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Frank Keating signed Joint Resolution 1035 after it passed the state legislature unanimously. This new law created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, now known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. The commission’s task was to uncover any and all information surrounding the massacre with the goals of: making atonement to the descendants of the victims; educating the citizens of the state of Oklahoma on the massacre through a new required K-12 curriculum for all Oklahoma schools; and creating a statewide environment of truth and reconciliation.
As the co-conveners of the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement (APJMM), we were very happy to visit Tulsa to participate in the centennial commemoration as participatory “Ambassadors for the State of Arkansas,” representing both the grassroots and the grass tops. We went to Oklahoma to learn everything we could about what it looks like for state, county and municipal governments to willingly and effectively demonstrate responsible leadership in the public reckoning of a dark, intentionally untaught history of a reign of terror in our nation that left hundreds of thousands of Black Americans as victims of racialized lynchings, expulsions and massacres. Our goal for the visit was to take the lessons we learned back home to Arkansas, which missed a golden opportunity to similarly honor the centennial memory of the tragic experience of Black Arkansans in the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919.
Oklahoma’s commission includes state legislators, university professors, state tourism and heritage officials, descendants of the massacre’s victims and other interested citizens. And, until current Governor Kevin Stitt signed HB1775 into law on May 10, effectively outlawing the teaching of critical race theory in all Oklahoma public schools, the governor even had a seat on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. (Stitt was ousted from the commission four days after he signed the critical race theory ban into law.)
The commission, funded with state appropriations, private donations and federal grants, has made significant progress. Their recently released 200-page report led to the uncovering of a mass grave of the victims of the massacre. The commission hosted a month-long calendar of events throughout the Tulsa area, including an internationally-televised symposium of truth and reconciliation and the dedication of a state-of-the-art museum called Greenwood Rising, previewed on HBO’s “The Watchmen.”
Since 2018, after we visited the brand new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its accompanying Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, APJMM has worked diligently with a multitude of likeminded partners to help the state of Arkansas fully acknowledge its own difficult past — a documented 493 lynching victims, several massacres and expulsions, and a few dozen sundown towns throughout the state that still exist, and function as such, today. Despite convening meetings with the governor, several legislators and many executive branch officials, we have still been unsuccessful in establishing a statewide truth and reconciliation effort here, even though Arkansas ranks as the third deadliest state for documented racial terror lynchings.
During the 2019 legislative session, several months before the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Race Massacre, we failed in our efforts to secure an official apology from the state. Lawmakers told us our truth and reconciliation efforts were the purview of the Arkansas MLK Commission, which they seemed to believe was the sole state agency sanctioned to handle “Black issues.” Yet, it was the privately-funded Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, an independent group made up of descendants of both victims and perpetrators, that hosted this state’s observance, which was minuscule compared to Oklahoma’s commemoration of its own massacre.
During the 2021 legislative session, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee completely ignored hundreds of supportive telephone calls, email messages and personal visits from supporters of SB674, which would have created the Unify Arkansas Commission, along with a pathway to the full posthumous exoneration of the 122 wrongfully convicted Black men of the Elaine Race Massacre.
So, what were the lessons learned from our visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma? The most important lesson is that we cannot ignore the past historic traumas that have been forced upon a segment of the population directly, and the rest of the population indirectly. Right now, most of the white elected officials in Arkansas seem willing to ignore the fact that Arkansas was a part of the Red Summer of 1919. We must learn that our past will continue to be our present, and will be cemented into our future, if our state does not officially acknowledge and reconcile its past beyond ubiquitous discussions of the 1957 Central High School integration crisis.
Judging from the targeted bills passed and signed into law during the 2021 legislative session — bills that will negatively, and intentionally, affect our different communities — all of the citizens of Arkansas will, one way or another, spend several years into the future grappling with the decisions made in this 93rd legislature. Again, our ignored past is our lived present and will likely become our future. Not only does it feel like we are reliving the rise of Jim Crow that worked hard to put an end to the Reconstruction era of Black prosperity, but that we are witnessing the rise of James Crow, Esq., whose mission it is to send a very clear and direct message to citizens of Arkansas in acts of violence via the pen.
Indeed, we can learn from other states like Oklahoma, Maryland, and Virginia — states that have recently created truth and reconciliation commissions and specified those efforts as being necessary to the health, safety and welfare of all of their citizens. If our legislature refuses to create the Unify Arkansas Commission we need to begin to heal from our past, we citizens will join together in the budding 2022 Statewide Citizen Initiative & Referendum Movement and create one ourselves. We are steadfast in our commitment to unify Arkansas through a truth and reconciliation process that can change hearts and minds, whether or not our own government joins us in this effort.