Thirty-two years ago I was in Tiananmen Square with a few other seminary faculty when the massacre occurred. The protest was an exhilarating time for the protesters and much of the rest of the world that watched in fascination – until the military moved in. Then came the bloodbath.

Two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., in which an estimated 300 Black men, women and children were killed.  Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP

That night I heard what I thought were firecrackers. In the early dawn our guide rapped on my hotel door demanding that everyone gather in the lobby within 15 minutes. We were quickly herded into our shuttle bus and the guide explained that what we heard were gunshots. He told us that the tanks had rolled into the square and, by some counts, thousands had been killed. He wasn’t sure of the facts, but he knew that a tragedy was occurring and it was essential to get us to the airport and off his hands. It was a time of confusion for all of us.

We careened down the streets, past rows of troops and tanks awaiting further orders. At major intersections crowds were gathered to hear the developing news from eyewitnesses. Surely, I thought, when we arrive at the airport there will be news about what is happening. But upon our arrival, we discovered that the only thing on the television sets were cartoons. The truth would have to wait until we arrived in Hong Kong on the last commercial flight out of Beijing. China’s media were on lockdown.

When we arrived in Hong Kong every paper and TV was reporting the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The tragedy was horrendous.

I was stunned both by the enormity of the massacre and the total silence of China’s media and government. I still am, as I read the news about China’s continuing suppression of the truth about that day.

But now I am painfully aware of the similarity between what happened in Tiananmen Square and what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. There were obvious differences: In China, the military were the principal malefactors – in Tulsa, the white mobs and people in private planes carried out most of the killing and burning while our military and police stood by. In Beijing, the protesters were portrayed as the aggressors while in Tulsa, Black residents were viewed as dangerous rioters. In Beijing,  the protesters were mainly students while in Tulsa, the targets included Black men, women and children.

In both cases, those killed were portrayed as dangerous and worthy of being exterminated. In both cases, the victims were blamed as the cause of the massacre. In both cases, the government and media conspired to bury the truth, along with the bodies. While it was not until I arrived in Hong Kong that I discovered the truth about Tiananmen, it has taken far longer for us to know what actually happened in the massacre of so many Black residents and the destruction of their homes and businesses in Tulsa.

I am ashamed to admit that even though I have been involved in the struggle for racial justice since the early 1960s, I had never heard of the massacre in Tulsa.  It was not in any history books I read or history courses I took. And I am not alone in my ignorance. Only recently have we learned that the media were largely silent, that police and state militia archives were missing, that the government placed the blame on the Black community, calling it “a race riot” rather than “a massacre,” and that our history has largely ignored the truth. For a century we have been ignorant because of a complicity of silence.

We must now face our own Tiananmen Square. Our nation, media and people are not the shining lights of freedom we have claimed to be. We too have buried both bodies and the truth. Only as we uncover and face our own truth can we build a nation that is just, and only then will we be able to stand with the victims of other nations.

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