The Persistent Politics of the Tulsa Race Massacre

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As the nation reflects on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, in which a White mob razed a prosperous Black community and killed many of its inhabitants, conversations have focused on the economic costs of such racial violence. But to understand where it comes from — and where American society is headed — one must recognize the extent to which the economic and the political have been intertwined.

Racial violence has been a feature of American political economy for at least 150 years. Decades before the devastation in Tulsa and the Red Summer of 1919, White supremacists had been seeking to limit Black people’s access to wealth and prosperity, most prominently by bringing Reconstruction to a violent end. The movement back to antebellum norms that we now call “Jim Crow” required brutal force over several years to reach its full effect. And economic and political suppression of Black Americans was a major goal.

After the Civil War, Black politicians strongly advocated increased taxes on land as part of an effort to redistribute wealth to the formerly enslaved. Without the promised “40 Acres and a Mule,” tax policy was the best way to achieve anything close to economic equity. Even as they worked to write new state constitutions, Black delegates argued for aggressive land redistribution. It didn’t happen, despite firm economic foundations and support from both Black and landless White voters. But the mere threat of redistributive policies was enough to move economically powerful Whites to violent action.

Local and grassroots White resistance to Reconstruction-era economic policy took many forms. The Charleston Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in 1871 encouraging local businesses to stop paying taxes, exemplifying what became a popular method to overthrow local Black political leaders. Some localities systematically removed Black politicians from offices that controlled public finance. Powerful White people infused the news media with baseless stories of Black waste of public dollars, and insinuated that policies aimed at aiding those recently in bondage were doomed to fail. While such strategies worked at the margin, they weren’t enough to discourage Black voters from pursuing a piece of the American dream — access to wealth and credit, non-discriminatory markets and quality education for their children. 

Violent action to suppress Black votes was more effective. As many as one in three murders of Black people in Louisiana during the late 19th century are thought to have been politically motivated. One precedent-setting example can be found in the Colfax Massacre of 1873. On Easter Sunday, April 13, a White mob attacked a group of Black militiamen who had seized control of the courthouse in Grant Parish, Louisiana, to enforce the results of an election in which Black candidates had won the offices of judge and sheriff. The White attackers continued cannon and rifle fire even after their opponents raised a white flag of surrender, then burned down the courthouse with Black people still inside and led off survivors two by two to be shot dead. The death toll may have exceeded 100. Attempts to prosecute the perpetrators culminated in the 1876 Supreme Court decision United States v. Cruikshank, which forbade federal prosecution of conspiracy charges under the Enforcement Acts. This immunity emboldened armed White militias to redouble their efforts to intimidate Black voters and end the project of racial economic equality.

The political coercion took on a partisan aspect following the 1874 “Alabama Plan,” in which Democrats abandoned any hope of securing Black votes and instead labeled themselves a “White man’s party.” In the Alabama Black belt, tactics included preventing Republicans from assembling (Eutaw County), murdering locally prominent politicians (Sumter County), intimidating Black voters by threatening their jobs (Barbour County), forcing Black people to leave polling stations without voting (Mobile County), importing White voters from neighboring states, and preventing victorious Republican candidates from raising their bonds (thus allowing defeated Democrats to take office by default). Congressional investigations into the 1874 elections in Alabama determined that “Democrats had used force to overturn the state’s Republican majority,” but no further action was taken. 

The violent political strategy of “Redemption” now had a successful template. In Mississippi in 1875, terroristic attacks by Redshirts, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, and widespread voter intimidation brought Democrats to a significant majority. In that election cycle, high-profile activists were targeted to serve as a warning of the dangers of being politically involved. The elections of 1876 brought rampant “fraud, intimidation, and terrorism in the South that returned the region to conservative control and restored Blacks to a condition more resembling serfdom than freedom,” as University of Alabama historian George Rable put in in his 2007 book “But There Was No Peace.” The areas that had sought to pursue the most progressive redistribution policies also saw the most attacks on Black politicians. By the time Reconstruction ended, all traces of the attempts to create a racially just economy had been wiped away. 

After Reconstruction, the South returned to its norms of high economic inequality, low public goods expenditures and segregated public goods. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know — beyond rough estimates of trillions of dollars in lost output — how the U.S. economy would have developed if racial equality had been pursued. Nevertheless — as the Capitol riots, recurrent White supremacist rallies and increasingly restrictive voting laws demonstrate — the policies and intent of political violence and voter suppression have spread throughout the country, and carry on through this day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Trevon Logan is a professor of economics at the Ohio State University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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