The Cat’s Out Of The Bag

Prairie Dog

From the Fall 2022 issue of  The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is  funded entirely by reader subscription,  available only in hard copy for $15/yr.  Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244. Click here for archived issues.

by Dave Leshtz

As the leaves turned orange and scarlet in Iowa, I spent a weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city I had never seen. I was drawn by the Bob Dylan Center and the Woody Guthrie Center.

Dylan has provided much of the soundtrack of my life. Put simply, visiting the site of his archives and exhibits about his work did not disappoint; even a casual fan can spend hours watching and listening to rare interviews and performances from the early sixties to the present.

Next door to the Dylan Center are similarly-housed archives and exhibits about Oklahoma-born Guthrie, who was Dylan’s spiritual and artistic father and thus, by extension, the spiritual and artistic influence of nearly every great American singer, songwriter, and poet of the past sixty years.

The two centers side-by-side in the Tulsa arts district are worthwhile for any observer of popular culture, music, literature, and politics. I learned, for example, that Woody campaigned vigorously for Iowa native and former Vice-President Henry Wallace when he ran for President in 1948.

It was at a third Tulsa site, however, that I learned the most. Just a few blocks from Dylan and Woody lies Greenwood Rising, in the heart of what was once known as Black Wall Street. This center depicts a vital neighborhood and its prosperous citizens, contrasted with photos and artifacts of smoking ruins and the distraught survivors of racist mayhem.

Thanks to HBO dramas like Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, and several recent documentaries, more of us know something about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Even Black residents were unaware that 35 blocks of homes and thriving businesses were burned to the ground and at least 300 people were killed when white residents—supported by the government—went on a two day rampage of unpunished hatred, resentment, and blood lust.

Some older black residents knew about the massacre but kept quiet, mostly because it was too frightening to talk about. Angel, a docent at Greenwood Rising, told me her grandmother still avoids the subject for fear that it could happen again. Only in the last twenty years, with the discovery of mass graves and evidence of official cover-ups, has
the horror been acknowledged. Sam, another docent, repeatedly told visitors, “The cat’s out of the bag.”

In the spring of 1921, a Black man was arrested for assaulting a white woman. Unfounded rumors rippled through the white population. A mob gathered outside the jail. A shot rang out and the mob erupted, burning the entire Greenwood district while the National Guard stood by.

In addition to the deaths and thousands of injuries, 9,000 people became homeless.  Thousands were interned through the winter. City and state officials, the newspapers, and a grand jury blamed the Black residents. No one in the mob was held accountable. The only white person charged was the Chief of Police, convicted for dereliction of duty. Redlining and racist law enforcement became more firmly entrenched in Tulsa.

What can we learn from Greenwood Rising? One glance at the day’s news suggests that smaller versions of the Tulsa Massacre happen every day in America: a Black man murdered for jogging in a white neighborhood, white policemen exonerated for shooting unarmed Black people, church and synagogue-goers slaughtered by self-proclaimed white
supremacists, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers carrying torches (shades of Tulsa) to terrorize Blacks and Jews.

A perfect example on a larger scale is the January 6 insurrection, a white rampage that the Republican Party—including Iowa’s US Senator Grassley—is doing its hypocritical best to blame on Black Lives Matter and Antifa. And Iowa’s Governor is running the most shamelessly racist television ad in the state’s history; despite being far ahead in campaign
money and polling numbers, she feels a need to fan the flames that can burn down a neighborhood.

The cat’s out of the bag, and it’s as mean and ugly and as dangerous as ever. If there’s any hope against ongoing repetitions of Tulsa massacres, insurrection attempts, and the fascist cult that has taken over the Republican Party, it’s at the ballot box. Electing Democrats
on November 8—and by margins large enough to overcome voter suppression—will not kill the cat but will at least hold accountable the party that encourages mobs like the one that destroyed an entire neighborhood a hundred years ago.

It could happen again.

—Dave Leshtz

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