This a standard game, but many Americans are still just waking up to it. My great-grandmother Mary E. Jones Parrish understood this dynamic all too well. She was a trained journalist and teacher who moved to Tulsa around 1919 and was reading at home when the violence began on May 31, 1921. Her young daughter, my grandmother Florence Mary, called her to the window, saying: “I see men with guns.”
In her newly republished book-length account of the Tulsa massacre of 1921, my great-grandmother reported on the horrific events that she and her daughter escaped. She admonished the nation to awake to the factors that feed state-sanctioned violence and provided a model for capturing and preserving the truth. She knew, as did the other survivors of the massacre: Our democracy depends on it. She wrote: “The rich man of power and the fat politician who have maneuvered to get into office, and even our Congress, may sit idly by with folded hands and say, ‘What can we do?’ Let me warn you that the time is fast approaching when you will want to do something and it will be too late.”
He and other like-minded lawmakers oppose the establishment of a commission to investigate the unprecedented attack, downplaying the gravity of an event that some have referred to as a failed coup d’etat. They are working feverishly to characterize the attack as relatively benign and to cast doubt on the legitimacy on any commission that is empaneled to investigate the crimes that took place in Washington, DC — the city where I reside — on Jan. 6.
In each of these scenarios, authority for bringing to light what happened and who was responsible rests, paradoxically, with stakeholders whose interests align with suppressing a factual accounting. In Tulsa, city fathers were more concerned with their image than in ensuring justice for the victims. And in Congress, what could be complicit factions among lawmakers are thwarting efforts to ensure transparency in government, a hallmark of a healthy democracy, to maintain power and escape possible criminal prosecution.
Their lust for power is matched by the bloodlust that Mary Parrish saw in the Tulsa mobs. She wrote: “This spirit of destruction, like that of mob violence when it is once kindled, has no measure or bounds.”
In a conversation I had with renowned historian Scott Ellsworth, who has been studying and writing about the Tulsa Race Massacre since the 1970s, I recall him using that same word — bloodlust — to describe what eyewitnesses said the Tulsa attackers exhibited. That was the motivating force for the murderous mob to organize and resume the attack on Greenwood, deploying the machinery and methods of war. It’s what we can see in the eyes of those who marched in Charlottesville, carrying torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us.” It’s what we can hear in the voices of those screaming as they slammed their bodies and weapons into the US Capitol.
Looking back on the events of 1921 and how we dissect and analyze what happened, it feels strange to think that people 100 years from today will evaluate the way we handled the political turmoil and violence in which we are currently embroiled. Will we demand truth and accountability, or will we accept a watered-down investigation that does not make people answer for potential crimes?
Mary Parrish’s warning is clear that failing to hold those responsible for political violence will beget further violence and destruction, perhaps even of democracy itself. I hope that we pass muster.