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The GOP is treating Jan. 6 the way white supremacists treated the Tulsa Race Massacre

A century after white people in power covered up the Tulsa Race Massacre, the GOP is trying to cover up the Jan. 6 riots.
Photo illustration: Red paint over images of smoke billowing from fires during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and of rioters storming into the Capitol on January 06 2021.
Two very different acts of "hate and domestic terrorism” have received similar responses by white people in power.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

If you’re wondering why you may have only recently heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, it's because this horrific incident in Oklahoma was intentionally covered up for decades by white people in power and their allies.

Today’s GOP is desperate to cover up the Jan. 6 attack because — like the whites who ran Tulsa in 1921 — it grasps how bad this looks for it politically.

Historian Scott Ellsworth explained to NBC News that the mayor and other city officials “realized that the massacre was this horrible public relations problem,” so they actively sought to erase records of the attack. This cover-up worked, which is why so few people outside of Black communities have heard much, if anything, about it until very recently.

One hundred years later, we’re seeing a disturbing similarity in the way many Republicans are downplaying a different terrorist attack carried out by white extremists: the Jan 6. attack on the U.S. Capitol.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden became the first sitting president to travel to Tulsa to commemorate the deadly 1921 attack that a white mob unleashed on Black residents in the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood. Biden acknowledged the estimated 300 lives taken and more than 1,000 homes destroyed in the violence. The neighborhood had been home to Black entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, a rare concentration of Black wealth both then and now.

While the Tulsa Race Massacre and Jan. 6 are not comparable in terms of loss of life or destruction, as Biden shared in his Tulsa address, one 107-year-old Tulsa survivor, Viola "Mother" Fletcher, pointed out some telling resemblances. The Jan. 6 attack by “a mob of violent white extremists, thugs” had “reminded her of what happened in Greenwood 100 years ago,” Biden shared.

There’s another glaring similarity between the two events: Today’s GOP is desperate to cover up the Jan. 6 attack because — like the whites who ran Tulsa in 1921 — it grasps how bad this looks for it politically, since its supporters carried out the attack. One of the most glaring examples of this came recently from Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., who denounced those who called the riot an “insurrection,” saying it looked more like a “normal tourist visit.”

There’s also Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who spoke at a white nationalist event in February and who last month slammed not the attackers, but federal law enforcement for “harassing peaceful patriots.”

Senate Republicans just last week blocked a bipartisan commission to investigate the details surrounding the Jan 6 riot.

Beyond that, Senate Republicans just last week blocked a bipartisan commission to investigate the details of the Jan. 6 riot. Like the politicians in Tulsa in the 1920s, they appear to want to cover up the details surrounding the attack because it’s bad PR for the GOP. It’s also possible that some Republicans in Congress — likely similar to some white politicians in 1920s Tulsa — feared a thorough investigation might implicate them in the attack.

When Biden stated in his Tuesday address that “what happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism with a through line that exists today still,” he was 100 percent correct. So was FBI Director Christopher Wray when he stated in his March testimony at a Senate hearing that Jan. 6 was an act of “domestic terrorism.”

And like in 1921, the threat posed by white extremist violence today is very real. In his testimony, Wray said that since he became FBI director in 2017, “the number of arrests of white supremacists and other racially motivated extremists has almost tripled,” The Associated Press reported. He also said, “Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

There are still many questions that need to be answered to avoid a repeat of Jan. 6, including about any role then-President Donald Trump personally played in the attack and how he will impact its continual aftermath. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted that Trump expects to be “reinstated” as president of the United States by August; there is no peaceful way for Trump to regain power in August — or at any time before January 2025.

None of these remarks can be ignored. They must be viewed as potentially the same call to arms that inspired the Jan. 6 attack by Trump supporters who — per federal indictments — sincerely believed they were doing what Trump wanted by violently attacking the Capitol to “stop the steal.”

"Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can't be buried, no matter how hard people try," Biden said Tuesday. This principle must also guide us when it comes to the Jan. 6 attack. For the sake of our democracy, we cannot allow today’s Republicans to cover up the attack like white politicians covered up the Tulsa Race Massacre.