Payback Time

As the debate over reparations heats up, James Hirsch offers a preview of what's to come

James Hirsch discusses and signs his new book, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy

The Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library in the Central West End

7 p.m. Thursday, May 2

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, author James Hirsch caught a glimpse of the fire next time.

Hirsch, a Clayton native, went to Tulsa after the success of his biography of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter -- a story that exposed the distortions race imposes on America's criminal-justice system. Oklahoma provided a story of racial injustice on a much larger scale; Hirsch found the state embroiled in a debate over reparations to the victims of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. He reveals the conflicts that arose out of the reparations issue in Oklahoma in Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Hirsch believes his new book might serve as a cautionary primer for the nation; he says, "Reparations will be the No. 1 civil-rights issue for many years to come."

The destruction of Greenwood, the African-American section of Tulsa, by marauding groups of the city's white citizens on the evening of May 31 and during the day of June 1 stands as the worst race riot -- or race "war," as Hirsch and contemporary accounts have described the violence -- in the twentieth century and, perhaps, the worst in all of American history. Greenwood -- with an African-American middle class, with the stylish Stradford Hotel and the expansive Mount Zion Baptist Church -- was looted and burned to the extent that photos of the riot's aftermath are reminiscent of images of bombed cities in World War II. African-American survivors were rounded up by citizen posses -- whites who had been deputized overnight to protect white Tulsa from a feared black insurrection -- and deposited at the local fairgrounds, which served as a makeshift concentration camp. The death toll may never be known -- estimates range as high as 300 -- but one of the mysteries of the riot remains unsolved: What became of the bodies?

Yet perhaps the most startling fact about such an enormous and violent social upheaval is the riot's disappearance from history. Either a "conspiracy of silence" or a "culture of silence" -- depending on which side of the racial fence a Tulsan is on -- kept the riot buried for 80 years.

The 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City brought the world's focus on the Sooner State as it was designated the "deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil" and the "worst urban disaster in American history." For those who knew of the events in Tulsa in 1921, those words awakened passions for remembrance and justice for a forgotten act of terrorism. North Tulsa's representative to the Oklahoma statehouse, Don Ross, was one of those who pushed for the story of Greenwood's destruction to be told and commemorated. Through Ross' urging, a Race Riot Commission was formed to write the official story and look into the issue of reparations for the riot's survivors.

By the time Hirsch came to Tulsa, the city had been invaded by journalists from the New York Times, CNN, 60 Minutes and many others. A French documentary team had come to Tulsa, recording the memories of octogenarian survivors such as George Monroe, who recalled a white rioter stepping on his hand when he hid under his family's bed as a five-year-old. After the hooligans left, he recalled, he walked into the street to see Greenwood burning. He turned to his sister and asked, "Is the world on fire?"

The battle for Tulsa's history, Hirsch discovered, was as disturbing as the battle that took place with guns, knives, clubs and torches in 1921. The riot commission itself became so polarized that its African-American and white members eventually sat on opposing sides of the table, each side arguing for its own "official narrative."

Hirsch believes the dual narratives of the Tulsa riot, divided by race, are emblematic of the nation as a whole. "When I was touring on the book tour with Rubin Carter -- certainly there are a lot of white Americans who look up to him or admire him, but he doesn't have to prove to black Americans that he was wrongfully convicted. Most blacks understand it's not a level playing field for whites and blacks in the courtroom or in the country in general, whereas with whites, myself included, there's a higher bar of legitimacy that you have to clear to prove that white America did something wrong. We [whites] tend to accept that version of events -- the accepted version of events by the dominant culture.

"One of the main points I tried to get across in the Tulsa book is how whites and blacks have two different narratives of history. The key is how to find ways to bring whites and blacks together on agreed-upon narrative, which is only possible by establishing facts that are indisputable and then moving on from there."

But that common ground is hard to locate -- especially, Hirsch says, when it comes to the issue of reparations for African-Americans. Although there is legal precedent, with reparations going to Japanese interned in America during World War II, the tensions along the black/white divide became starkly evident in Oklahoma when the discussion turned to payments to African-Americans for wrongs done to them at the beginning of the last century.

Tulsa's new mayor, Bill LaFortune, "has a lot of goodwill with blacks," says Hirsch, "but I don't think he or any other public official in Tulsa will advocate reparations, because it would mean the end of their political career. Blacks make up 10 percent of the city, and while there are whites in Tulsa who advocate reparations or favor reparations, the overwhelming majority oppose it. That's just a political reality of the city and the state."

On the national scale, the debate's already moving through the nation's courts. Lawsuits have been filed against major corporations, including Aetna, FleetBoston and CSX. Over the next decade, more suits will be filed, naming other companies, the federal government and colleges and universities. The federal government, it will be argued, allowed a pernicious institution to thrive and then, from the post-Reconstruction era through the 1950s, failed to secure equal rights for slavery's descendants. Private corporations and universities profited from slavery and still hold funds in trust from that long-ago time.

To Hirsch, Tulsa serves as a preview for what may occur all over the country when national reparations are pursued. "What we learn is very sobering. We learn that regardless of whether you are for or against reparations, it is an extremely polarizing event. Blacks and their allies feel very strongly that this is a way to remedy a past injustice. Whites, on the other hand, resent being made to feel responsible for the sins of their fathers. The more that each side digs in their heels, the more emotional, the more angry, the more bitter the argument becomes.

"I talk in the book that there's a real tension between these two laudable but conflicting goals -- the goals of justice on one hand and reconciliation on the other. Those of us who favor reconciliation, that feel blacks and whites need to find a way to come together, to find a way to lower these barriers -- are troubled by reparations, not because we question the issue of justice delayed or retroactive justice but because the price of justice is going to be very high. The price of justice -- even if you get reparations, if you get payment from a corporation or from the federal government -- I think the price of that justice is going to be resentment among whites. They are going to say, 'If we white Americans are paying you black Americans for these injustices of years ago, it means that we're not going to have to open our doors to you in business and education and other types of opportunities.'"

Hirsch avoids taking a stand on the issue of reparations in Riot and Remembrance: "I try to examine the intellectually defensible positions on both side of the debate. Then I try to get people to understand that even if you think reparations are the right way to go, there's going to be a high price to pay."

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