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Senator Lankford Wrote a Letter of Apology to Black Tulsans. Unfortunately, We’re Tired of Apologies. We Demand Action.
On January 14, Oklahoma senator James Lankford (R) published an open letter to the Black people of North Tulsa in which he acknowledged the tragedy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that obliterated the Greenwood neighborhood. The senator also apologized for his role in perpetuating the lie that President Biden won the 2020 election by fraudulent means and for trying to disenfranchise Black Americans.
In the letter, the senator wrote that his actions “caused a firestorm of suspicion among many of my friends, particularly in Black communities around the state. I was completely blindsided, but I also found a blind spot.” I agree with columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post when she wrote that if “Lankford truly ‘missed’ this, then he has utterly failed to acquire the minimum amount of knowledge required of a senator. He should be ashamed of his ignorance and resign.”
However, if Lankford truly had a “blind spot” it must still be there, because in penning this mea culpa, he conveniently left out the fact that his actions also helped provoke the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that took the lives of five people, including a police officer.
For some, the letter was an important gesture of reconciliation, and many believe the senator’s intentions were heartfelt and sincere. But like so many of the efforts of Republican enablers of Trump and his lies, hatred, and incompetence, the gesture failed to meaningfully address the real issues.
The time for simple acknowledgment of the atrocities committed in the attack on Greenwood is over. Black Americans and Black Tulsans in particular are well aware of what happened in 1921 and its long-term impact on our people’s well-being. We are also well aware that, as chronicled in a recent Washington Post feature, that the Greenwood “renaissance” of recent years has largely benefited white business and property owners. Black Tulsans remain mostly temporary residents on land that our people once called our own.
Meanwhile, Tulsa’s city fathers continue to focus on tourism, empty ceremonies, and reconciliation without calling for the hard work of repentance and restoration. My grandma always said, “The truth shall set you free.” The truth is, there can be no reconciliation without justice, and to date no one has been held accountable for the horror of Greenwood. In fact, on January 25, the members of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission announced that despite his attempted disenfranchisement of Black voters and his provocation of the Capitol riot, they would not request Senator Lankford’s removal from the commission. Instead, they would “accept his apology and embrace his desire to reaffirm his commitment to help bring vital resources and opportunities to the Greenwood District, Black Tulsans, and Black Americans from coast to coast.”
Translation: the Commission has no interest in accountability, merely in empty, placatory gestures. Senator Lankford’s letter not only strikes me as hollow but as an insult to the people of Greenwood, past and present. This is not a time for rhetoric, but for meaningful, substantive actions. If the senator truly wishes to show affection for and solidarity with the Black people of North Tulsa, these are some of the actions we suggest he take:
- Publicly support the ongoing lawsuit calling for restoration and repair for the 1921 Race Massacre under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law.
- Publicly support the campaign to have a percentage of revenues from the to-be-completed Greenwood Rising history center go to the families of Massacre victims.
- Immediately co-sponsor, publicly support, and vote for H.R.7120, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
- Immediately co-sponsor, publicly support, and vote for S.4263, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
- Call upon the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a “pattern-or-practice” investigation into the well-documented racially disparate policing of Black Tulsans by the Tulsa Police Department.
Taking these actions would represent meaningful progress toward justice for the people of North Tulsa and this nation. Prior to his election, Lankford served for 15 years as the Oklahoma student ministries and evangelism specialist and director for a large Baptist Assembly. Thus, he should be familiar with Matthew 7:16, wherein Jesus tells his disciples that to know who someone really is, “you can identify by their fruit, that is, by the way they act.” The time for apologies and contrition is past. If senator Lankford truly wishes to make amends for his constituents and this nation, he will act. He must act.
Damario Solomon Simmons, Esq., M.Ed. is civil and human rights attorney at SolomonSimmonsLaw, African & African-American Studies adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma, and founder of the Justice For Greenwood Foundation, Inc.