In 1893, famous black journalist Ida B. Wells attended the Chicago World Fair on a mission.
During a brutally ugly era in American history of rapid escalations in mob lynchings of black citizens from Georgia to Oklahoma and from Lawton to Okmulgee, U.S. leaders were attempting to market a vision of innovation, prosperity, and racial harmony to the world. The Chicago World Fair was the venue to promote that vision. The biggest hurdle to foreign nationals accepting that vision was Ida. B Wells, who highlighted the fact that no black people were included, along with the myriad of reasons why.
For years, Wells had been travelling the South, covering dozens of cases of extrajudicial killings of black men, women and children, by racist white mobs, many under the banner of the KKK.
Wells decided to promote a vision of her own. The truth about America. She wrote pamphlets detailing her investigations and hand-distributed them to hundreds of people from various countries at the fair.
Beyond that, when Memphis, Tennessee refused to stop or even acknowledge its inhumane, immoral and undemocratic tolerance for these mob murders of black citizens, Wells’ editorials convinced hundreds of black citizens to flee to Oklahoma, eliminating a large segment of the city’s tax base. Wells even went to England to convince industrialists to sever business ties. She became well-known across Europe.
Oklahoma is no stranger to this brutal history. In fact, after statehood it was the scene of some of the most brutal episodes of racially-motivated mob lynchings. Laura Nelson and her son in 1911 Okeemah. (Lynchers couldn’t find the husband so they settled for his wife and child). John Fullhood, who was hanged and burned alive outside 1906 Norman was another victim.
These acts of domestic terror perhaps culminated in the Greenwood Race Massacre, in which a white mob, police, and national guard attacked the most prosperous black community in America after failing an attempted lynching because armed black Tulsans stood by in defense.
In communities across Oklahoma, entire families ranging up to thousands of people attended lynchings like it was a festival. Parents would give their children photos, jewelry, even hair and body parts from the victims as a gift to remember the event.
Two years from now Tulsa leaders will attempt to paint a new picture of the city’s racial progress. City and County leaders who continue to condone the employment of a white supremacist, terrorist member at the County Clerk’s office should not be surprised when black Tulsans utilize the same tactics today that Ida B. Wells used more than 100 years ago: a tactic of truth-telling. As raw and visceral as the deadly legacy of racial terror, domination and extermination the KKK organization has expounded on black Americans.
Bonnie Kukla’s beliefs negatively impact her perceived legitimacy and therefore the perceived legitimacy of Tulsa and Tulsa County’s government. Oklahoma is an at-will state. In the same way a woman who openly yells racist profanities at an innocent bystander may lose her job after going viral, when someone’s extracurricular activities negatively impact how the organization they belong to is perceived by the public, that organization is within its bounds to fire that employee.
When Governor Jack Walton, a flip-flopping opportunist who was himself inducted into the KKK, used his power to declare martial law in order to run the KKK out of scores of Oklahoma towns, including Okmulgee and Tulsa, he was immediately impeached by the racist legislature. Oklahoma’s historical society describes him as someone who “engaged in an out-and-out war with the Ku Klux Klan, leaving himself with few friends.”
But he still succeeded in staining the perception of the KKK in Oklahoma, moving the social justice needle slightly forward.
If you aren’t moving the needle forward someone else is pushing it back. Do the right thing. Fire Bonnie Kukla.