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New Documentary Uncovers The Worst Racial Violence In United States History

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Destruction of Tulsa’s wealthy black district during the 1921 race riot.

“Why are we addicted to hate in America?”

That was the simple, provocative question of Rachel Lyon, as she introduced her 2014 documentary to a crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Hate Crimes in the Heartland” spends an hour exploring two separate, racially motivated killings that occurred nearly a century apart. 

The film begins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, following the April 2012 “Good Friday shootings” that took three lives and critically injured two others. Two young men — one white, the other Native American — drove around the city, opening fire on groups of black people. The random slaughter attracted national media attention and stirred the ghosts of another racial atrocity — the 1921 Tulsa race riot. 

Rioters obliterated the wealthy black enclave in Tulsa, affectionately known as “Black Wall Street.” Historians still debate what sparked the violence (some say a black man stepped on a white woman’s shoe, others say it was attempted rape), but the outrage of white residents was swift: in fewer than 24 hours, more than 300 people died and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Nearly 9,000 black residents were left homeless. 

“Hate Crime in the Heartland” features commentary from civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, Oklahoma NAACP officials and journalists who covered the 2012 shootings. But the survivors of the 1921 riots, only children when their town burned around them, provide the most moving portions of the documentary.

Dr. Olivia Hooker was six years old in 1921. “My grandmother made me these beautiful doll clothes and I remember seeing them burn on the clothesline. My grandmother let me peek out the window. ‘You see those machine guns? That’s your country shooting at you,’ she told me.”  

Lyon, who wrote and directed the film, noted that among several race-related massacres in the early twentieth century, Tulsa is best remembered because of an unusual circumstance: Prosperous black residents could afford the cameras that documented the rampage and destruction.  

After the screening, Lyon joined a panel discussion that included Rev. Dr. Jawanza Colvin, pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church; Skyler Edge, an LGBTQ activist; Bettysue Feuer, regional chair of the local Anti-Defamation League; and Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, senior pastor of the South Euclid United Church of Christ. 

“I think we underestimate how hard it is to learn from the past,” Lyon said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep repeating it.” 

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