U.S. Sen. James Lankford (OK-R) will not be held accountable nor abdicate his title as a Commissioner of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission after being repeatedly asked to do so by Tulsa’s Black community, allies, and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
In a letter released to the public, the Centennial Commission said, in part:
“Friends of the Centennial Commission:
We issue this statement in response to questions about the status of Centennial Commission member Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) following the January 6 Capitol insurrection and objections to the certification of electoral votes.
At the request of Senator Lankford, the Centennial Commission afforded him the opportunity to hear directly from its members and share his perspective on these events. The Centennial Commission then decided on a two-week period for members to reflect on the matter before reconvening and airing final thoughts.
At its core, the Centennial Commission is about reconciliation. For the purpose of achieving that goal, we must continue to harness our connective tissue – even when we are not in absolute agreement. Senator Lankford, despite clear differences (some of them profound), stands on common ground with us in terms of the importance of reconciliation as well as educating all United States citizens about Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, the storied “Black Wall Street,” including the massacre and its impact on Oklahoma and the nation.
The Centennial Commission believes deeply in racial reconciliation and inter-generational healing.
To that end, we must continue to extend an olive branch. It is our inherent duty to show our partners the way.”
Lankford has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t believe systemic racism is an American problem. He also does not believe in reparations.
In an effort to disenfranchise Black and Brown voters in predominantly democratic cities, Lankford’s initial plan to contest the results of the 2020 presidential election drew upon the legal precedent which ushered in the Jim Crow era.
The Department of Justice announced there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud and the 2020 elections were the safest in U.S. history. Despite this, Lankford was a vocal proponent of objecting to the certification of the electoral college votes.
It was not until after the violent insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol by domestic terrorists that Lankford decided to rescind his objection – though he continued to propagate the debunked claims of fraud.
America and Oklahoma have a long and well-documented history of disenfranchising Black voters, which is why the Senator’s apology to Tulsa’s Black community (or, as he put it, his “friends in North Tulsa”) for the “perception” of racism was widely panned as insincere. It should be noted that the senator has not apologized for his actions, only for the other’s perceptions of them.
While Lankford seemingly played an active role in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission as a Commissioner, some members of Tulsa’s Black community have long-questioned Lankford’s motives.
Moreover, some Black Tulsans questioned if the Centennial Commission represents the will of Tulsa’s Black community at all.
City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper is of those Black community members who feel that way:
“I left the Commission in 2016 because I have seen that they didn’t have the Black community’s best interest at heart. By them deciding to keep Lankford on is what happens when you get Black people who are more concerned with titles, positions and their bank accounts. I have always wanted to live a life that when I leave here, I know that I made a difference in my community. I’d rather leave behind a legacy and not what was comfortable. I am now waiting to see who will leave the 1921 Centennial Commission — if any at all!”,
The Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission Chair, Kristi Williams, had this to say:
“The Centennial Commission has never been a commission for the people, that’s why you don’t see descendants of Greenwood who are on the frontlines serving on it. That Commission serves as a cash cow to profit from our oppression, our pain and our history. That Commission also serves as a table to uphold the status quo. I’m really saddened by the Black people who agree with Lankford staying on because it shows how our very own people are complicit with white supremacy just as long as their pockets are padded. So when you ask about the continued destruction of our sacred Greenwood, look at them.”
Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews is the Chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and a friend to Lankford.
State Senator Matthews stated there were 46 people on the call discussing whether or not to move forward with Lankford as a Commissioner. Matthews also said that none of the commissioners stated that Lankford should be kicked off the Commission, rather that some commissioners felt that Lankford should resign while others said he should be allowed to remain. Matthews said the consensus of the commission was that if Lankford remained that he should commit to specific deliverables.
A source on the call disputes this characterization, stating the commissioners left the call with the expectation that Matthews would deliver a message to Lankford – ‘we aren’t going to force you to resign, but we think you should.’
During the meeting, three commissioners vocalized explicit desire for Lankford to remain. Those expressing an explicit desire for him to resign were much more passionate than those wanting him to stay, says a close source who was on the call. The source said they were also very surprised by the letter released from the Commission.
“The commission shouldn’t have to kick him off. He should resign on his own. For the work of the commission to continue and have credibility with the community, he should resign.
He could still continue doing the work, but his presence has turned into such a distraction that it has caused divides within the community – pitting Black elected leaders against each other,” the sources said.
The general perception of those who spoke with BWST under the condition of anonymity is that Lankford went toe to toe with Black leaders and community members in this situation and he won.
By our estimation, approximately half of the statements in the letter released by the commission are either inaccurate or misleading. It is clear there wasn’t a sense of harmony or consensus around deliverable-building. In addition to shock at the content of the letter was a sense of disappointment that there was no call for Lankford to accept responsibility and admit that he lied.
The “deliverables”, as listed in the statement released by the commission, did not outline any specific calls for national policies regarding voting rights, policing reform, reparations or any other significant legislative effort. In fact, none of the objectives require the participation of Lankford at all.
Matthews said the mission of the commission is to secure funding for the Greenwood Rising project and that members of the community may be able to serve as board members for the museum once the 501(c)3 is officially established.
Matthews stated that he is “just an elected official who is trying to do something good for the Greenwood community.” When questioned by CNN News anchor Don Lemon if he accepts Lankford’s apology, Matthew’s said, “We have gotten the letter. We accepted the letter. The apology being accepted is going to be our community and our commission members, whether or not they accept it, that’s what’s important. Lemon then said, “So, you said you did speak to him. So — and was it a cordial conversation? Did you give him some tough love? What was that like? What did you say exactly?
Matthews then made a movement towards his computer, then his mic went silent.
Lemon said, “I can’t hear him anymore. We can’t — we can’t. We can’t — you muted yourself. Can you unmute yourself?”
Matthews told The Black Wall Street Times editor-in-chief, Nehemiah Frank, that he wasn’t ready to give an answer because he hadn’t met with the other commissioners. Matthews alleged on the call with Frank that CNN muted him because they didn’t like his answer; and that NewsOne with Roland Martin also cut him short for the same reason.
Matthews provided the following statement during an interview with The Black Wall Street Times:
“When I started talking, the decision had not been made by the Commission — I couldn’t give a direct answer to that because I wasn’t going to do that without us having our conversation that was coming. So they muted me. They muted me because I think that they expected a more hostile and direct answer that I couldn’t give at that time,” Matthews stated.
Greg Robinson, a well-respected community organizer, said:
“[I am] deeply disappointed in the Commission. Any commission claiming to represent or honor the victims and descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre that doesn’t stand for some form of economic justice and reparations and can’t stand against the same white supremacist apologist thinking that led to the Massacre is missing the mark and needs to reflect on its purpose. I hope one day Black Tulsans will have the freedom to honor and fight for our ancestors and our dignity without fear.
Please, support independent Black-journalism during the Year of the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
By Nehemiah Frank (founder & editor in chief) and Sarah Gray, (political correspondent), and other members from the editorial board.