After much outcry, President Donald Trump has postponed the Make America Great Again Rally that was scheduled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth — a location and date that are conspicuously linked to key events in black American history.
Juneteenth, on June 19, marks liberation for black Americans, while Tulsa is the site of one of America’s deadliest racial massacres. The optics around the president’s event — a large gathering of supporters who often turn Trump’s racist tweets into chants like “send her back” — were being called out for insensitivity as the country battles two crises: one against racism and police violence and the other against the novel coronavirus.
For the past two and a half weeks, anti-racism protests have swept the country, set in motion by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose brutal killing by a white police officer was captured on video. The protests have set off a larger movement to hold businesses, media, and institutions accountable for discriminatory and racist practices and for white Americans to re-examine their own innate biases.
The Trump administration first announced the rally on Wednesday, two weeks after Floyd’s death, and by Thursday, officials were rebutting accusations that the rally’s timing and location signal that black lives don’t matter to the administration.
In an interview with Fox News host Harris Faulkner that aired on Friday, Trump said he did not deliberately choose the date, though his administration has highlighted the Juneteenth holiday when speaking about the rally. “Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said in the interview. “Give me the biggest stadium and we fill it up every time. We’ve never had a vacancy.”
Trump’s critics argued the rally would celebrate the wrong things.
“Tulsa was the site of the worst racist violence in American history. The president’s speech there on Juneteenth is a message to every Black American: more of the same,” wrote US Rep. Val Demings on Twitter.
California Sen. Kamala Harris said Trump’s decision “isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” in a tweet. Others, including The Root’s Michael Harriot, suggested that Trump is trying to incite a race war.
Late Friday night, Trump said he would move the rally to the following day, June 20. “Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents,” he tweeted. “I have therefore decided to move our rally to Saturday, June 20th, in order to honor their requests.”
We had previously scheduled our #MAGA Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19th – a big deal. Unfortunately, however, this would fall on the Juneteenth Holiday. Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2020
The mounting pressure for Trump to change course — and the fact he actually did so — reflects a country grappling with the 400 years of racism and oppression faced by black Americans. It also shines a light on events that have shaped the country’s racist foundation, like the massacre in Tulsa, often erased in textbooks, and Juneteenth, long seen as a shadow holiday in the American collective.
The Tulsa Massacre, briefly explained
When Trump announced that his first rally in months would be held in Tulsa, the historic significance wasn’t lost on many black Americans. In 1921, a white mob destroyed the affluent Greenwood District of the city, known as Black Wall Street, burning down 35 blocks, including 1,200 homes, and killing 300 black people in the process. As Vox’s Emily Stewart reported, it’s still unknown where they buried the bodies of the victims.
After decades of missing records and little attention on the massacre, a 1990s report from an Oklahoma commission called the incident “the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War.”
Other records show that the massacre sparked when black people gathered to protect a black teenager from getting lynched. The teenager, Dick Rowland, was arrested for allegedly attacking a white woman. The white mob had gathered outside the courthouse where he was being held. This all occurred during a post-World War I period when anti-black violence was high across the country, as Stewart noted.
Firsthand accounts of that evening chronicle the trauma that black victims have had to endure for generations. After city officials called the massacre “race riots” for decades, the commission’s report called for “redemption, historical correctness, and repair.”
It’s this continued call for “historical correctness and repair” that critics suspect will be desecrated when Trump descends with his Make America Great Again crowd in Tulsa, even if his rally has been postponed by a day. Trump has exacerbated this concern, like when he recently suggested that black people and the MAGA crowd are not one and the same. “They love African American people. They love black people. MAGA loves the black people,” he said when asked about national Black Lives Matter protests.
Further calling into question Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally since the pandemic hit in the state is that fact that Oklahoma is very red. In every presidential election since 1968, a Republican has carried Oklahoma. Trump won Oklahoma in 2016 by 65.3 percentage points and is expected to win the state this year, so it’s unclear why he would feel a need to rally supporters there.
Juneteenth marks how liberation has historically been delayed for black people
There is a push to make Juneteenth a national holiday because the date signifies the moment when enslaved black people in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy became aware of emancipation. The Confederacy surrendered in April 1865, but it wasn’t until more than a year later, on June 19, 1866, that enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom, making them the last to be officially freed from slavery.
At a time when the country takes to the streets to defend the humanity of black lives lost to white violence, the holiday means so much more. Activists are planning Juneteenth marches across the country to highlight the enduring fight for liberation. The gatherings will stand as a counter to Trump’s inaction on several crises, from police violence and racism to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though Trump is no longer holding his rally on Juneteenth, many still question hosting such a large event while the country remains in the midst of a pandemic that requires people to keep their distance from each other to stay safe and healthy. The BOK Center, where the event will be held, can hold almost 20,000 people.
A disclaimer on the rally’s registration page reads, “By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree to not hold Donald J. Trump for President ... liable for any illness or injury.”
Onlookers have noted that with coronavirus disproportionately impacting black communities, the campaign’s willingness to put people at risk is reckless — particularly in a place that has a significant black population; Tulsa County is about 11 percent black, according to the Census Bureau.
“If your rallies come with a liability waiver, you shouldn’t be holding them,” Hillary Clinton tweeted on Friday afternoon.
There is another week, and a lot of tweets, between now and Trump’s rally; it remains to be seen if the president will change course again.