On May 30, 1921, in Tulsa, a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland stepped into an elevator with a 17-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. People contest what actually happened in the elevator, but at one point Page screamed, Rowland left the area, the police were called, and the next morning Rowland was arrested in the Greenwood District.
A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune ran that afternoon citing that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. A white mob gathered outside the courthouse that night demanding Rowland be handed over. Later, an unarmed black man was shot and killed in a movie theater.
In the early hours of June 1, white citizens entered the Greenwood District in large numbers, looting and burning homes and businesses over 35 city blocks. Firefighters called to the area later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.
A hospital, a school, a library, two newspapers, churches and other black-owned businesses were burned or destroyed. A commission report on the 18 hours in 2001 concluded that as many as 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 lost their homes.
In the hours that followed the destruction, the police found no evidence to support anything other than that Rowland stumbled into Page or accidentally stepped on her foot. Charges were dropped and he left Tulsa.
A bill was introduced in 2012 that required all Oklahoma high schools to teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre. It failed. The state’s Department of Education claims it has been required teaching in Oklahoma history classes since 2000 and US history classes since 2004. It wasn’t included in Oklahoma history textbooks until 2009.
I didn’t learn about this until an eighth-grade social studies class. It was called a riot. Black Wall Street was never mentioned.
I grew up two hours from Tulsa.
The Black community hasn’t been heard. It hasn’t been valued. It hasn’t been respected. It hasn’t been understood. America has a problem with racism it has been comfortable with neglecting. Ninety-nine years ago that massacre happened. Ninety-nine years later where are we?
The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in police custody, by a white officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25 set off something in this country. In the days since, protests have taken place in every single state, as well as in countries overseas demanding an end to police brutality aimed at the Black community.
I’ve wondered what to say and do. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve donated to legal defense funds and other non-profits in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and New York City, as well as here locally. I’ve retweeted voices that need to be amplified. I understand that as a straight, white man I won’t ever understand, but it’s my responsibility to do something. The goal of listening is to equip the listener to act, not to ease his own consciousness. Not so he can just say “I hear you,” post a black tile on Instagram and be done with it.
My job is to write about football, but football is so secondary right now. As such, the sports world has shifted its focus from nonconference schedules and training camps and return-to-play models.
Coaches everywhere have stepped beyond the PR-mandated Twitter statements and have taken to their communities.
I’ve seen current and former Huskers out peacefully protesting. Cam Taylor-Britt, Myles Farmer, Quinton Newsome, Caleb Tannor, Braxton Clark, Alante Brown and Tamon Lynum have all been out. One current player went with former defensive back Tony Butler to a peaceful event at the Lincoln capitol building. Former offensive lineman Jerald Foster was there handing out water bottles to protestors. He’s been out as much as he can. When we talked, he was on his way to another peaceful gathering.
“Fans need to understand that we’re human,” Butler told me. “We’re not superhuman.”
Former Iowa players took to Twitter en masse over the weekend to share stories of racially-charged mistreatment within the program’s strength and conditioning department. (The quicker we can accept this is not an instance of bad apples but of rotten orchards, the better.) The responses from people were saddening.
North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown shared this:
Sometimes I think this the only time they really care about my life. pic.twitter.com/4wob1gPsnW
— Dyami Brown (@deuce2_) June 4, 2020
JD Spielman said “If you love me in a jersey, better love me when my skin color becomes the uniform.” It should be heartbreaking to be confronted with the idea Black athletes feel they have utility and not value.
“I can tweet I had a bad day and I’ll get like 12 likes, a couple retweets and a couple people saying, ‘Are you okay?’ But as soon as I post Nebraska football, got an interception, or something like that, then there’ll be 100 retweets, 200 comments and a whole bunch of likes,” Butler said. “It’s like, which one really matters?”
There’s an intersection between activism and athletics because of the platforms football and basketball players (specifically, but not exclusively) have.
“A lot of athletes, they feel like they need to be quiet about how they feel,” Foster said. “Back before all this was happening, it felt like if you say the wrong thing, your coach might not want you out there. He feels like you’re being a distraction to the team.”
Something we as a white society have horribly failed at for years and years has been not falling victim to distractions.
In 2016, three Nebraska football players—Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry, and DaiShon Neal—knelt during the national anthem before a game against Northwestern. Colin Kaepernick took a knee in the San Francisco 49ers second preseason game in 2016 to bring awareness to police brutality and a disproportionate killing of Black men at the hands of white officers.
“As we looked at what’s been going on in this country, the injustices that have been taking place primarily against people of color, we all realized that there is a systematic problem in America that needs to be addressed,” Rose-Ivey said at a press conference four years ago. Go back and read the comments sent their way. Go back and read what Rose-Ivey said they endured.
It is and always has been important to not stick to sports.
“Kap said something that’s going on right now and no one listened,” Butler said. “That’s why.
“When these things are going on and Black athletes are talking about it, we have to listen. They’re not doing it for publicity or fame, they’re doing it because they actually care. Kap did that four years ago and no one listened. No one listened. Everyone wanted to say he was disrespecting the flag, he was disrespecting the troops. No. Talk about systematic racism.”
In 2014, Kobe Bryant and his LA Laker teammates warmed up in black t-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” on them, the last words of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by a New York police officer who put him in a chokehold.
Two years later, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx warmed up in t-shirts that read “Change Starts With Us” on the front and on the back had the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men killed by police officers. Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers who were working security for the game left their posts at the Target Center because of the shirts. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, commended the officers for it.
Things haven’t changed at all. And yet this feels different.
We’ve been witnessing protests for two weeks now and the movement doesn’t seem to be losing any steam. If anything, it’s gaining momentum.
“It feels like people’s minds are made up,” Foster said. “If you’re against it, we’re against you, and not like in that we’re going to fight and try to take you out or anything like that, but everybody’s banding together and we’re trying to make it so everybody has the same rights.
“It’s crazy that it’s taken this long. Who would have told you that in 2020 it’d take a group of people banding together so everyone would feel like they’re equal and there would be equity around the country?”
Butler grew up on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, a predominantly black area. “I went to a predominantly white high school on the other side of town,” Butler said. “I was basically going to two worlds in one day, back-and-forth.” He had 12 Black students in a high school graduating class of 232. Then, there were no Black teachers or staff members at the school. Being socially aware is all he’s ever known.
Foster’s grandparents were civil rights activists. His grandmother marched throughout Alabama and was hosed. “If I’m able to give my hand here and there, I’m going to do it,” he said. “There’s no reason why I wouldn’t.”
Foster wishes the looting would stop. A lot of people do. It’s a shame burning and defacing and destruction of property has taken place in tandem with largely peaceful protests. It takes away from the message. Another attempt at distraction. There’s enough out there to make clear, though, the ones with something to say are using this moment as a vehicle for actual change. Drew Brees is the latest example of what can happen if you sit down and listen with the intent of growing.
That’s the ask right now, that we grow.
“It’s the whole country’s responsibility to educate,” Butler said. “I think we first need to change the school system. The books are outdated. They give false narratives about different things. I may read it one way, you will read it the other way as a white man. We’re both reading the same material but we’re internalizing it differently. I see a slave-holder while you see a great president.”
There’s change happening. The Minneapolis City Council declared Sunday its intention to disband the MPD and replace it with a new community-led system. There’s plenty left to be done. Here locally, former Huskers Keiron Williams and Eric Crouch are organizing a NOT ONE MORE LIFE. March for June 13 at the Nebraska state capitol. Crouch is going to speak.
There are ways to help. And there’s a lot left to do.