‘Hidden History’ Panel participants (clockwise from upper left): Randal Jelks, Ph.D., ABC57’s Brian Conybeare, Journalist-author Tim Madigan, and Thomas Mockaitis, Ph.D.

To Understand Systemic Racism Today, History Panel Urges Americans to Learn about Tulsa, Other Past Evils

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.— Tim Madigan, author of “The Burning,” a book about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, was returning to his Texas home from Tulsa after three days during the massacre’s 100th anniversary commemoration. He stopped in a bookstore to sign copies of the 2001 book. Someone wanted to meet him. The young man was a descendant of a prominent doctor murdered by the white mob in 1921. For Madigan, “something magical was in the air” during the June 2021 centennial observance, and the descendant agreed. Each talked about being amazed by the experience.

Madigan said he didn’t know how to explain it. “I do,” said the young man. “The ancestors have been at work.” “And I think that’s as good an explanation as there is perhaps,” Madigan told the online audience during the third webinar of “Hidden History: Understanding the Origins of Racial Inequity,” part of the ongoing Community Grand Rounds program about how systemic racism harms the health of African Americans. This final segment covered the early 1900s to the present. Madigan called what happened in Tulsa “the worst act of racial violence in our nation, by far,” with as many as 300 Black Tulsans slain, thousands left homeless and dozens of blocks of the prosperous Greenwood district leveled. Picking up on the young descendant’s theme, Madigan said, “Many of them lost everything, but their spirits endure, and the story endures in terms of what we’re going through in this nation right now.”

Madigan told the story of how those two days unfolded—“the smoke and the fire and the death and the cruelty and the horror and the evil”—a chapter of U.S. history followed by a “remarkable conspiracy of silence” for decades. Writing the book changed Madigan. He learned what happened in Tulsa “wasn’t some horrible one-off but was completely consistent with what was going on in the nation at the time.” As “this kind of ignorant white boy from northern Minnesota, learning the history of race in this country for the first time changed the way I looked at people different than me. And somehow it opened my heart and gave me more compassion and more curiosity for African Americans and people who have been marginalized. And I came to recognize the great wound we had in this country, and I became committed to trying to do whatever I could to try to help heal it.”

As “this kind of ignorant white boy from northern Minnesota, learning the history of race in this country for the first time changed the way I looked at people different than me. And somehow it opened my heart and gave me more compassion and more curiosity for African Americans and people who have been marginalized.
And I came to recognize the great wound we had in this country, and I became committed to trying to do whatever I could to try to help heal it.”

For the nation really to move forward with racial reckoning and reconciliation, “White people need to learn the history of race in this country.”

Madigan was joined by Randal Jelks, Ph.D., a University of Kansas professor, and Thomas Mockaitis, Ph.D., a DePaul University professor. The three were united in the theme that the past is still with us and needs to be taught and learned. ABC57’s Brian Conybeare moderated the panel.

Professor Jelks, whose books include one about the civil rights struggle in Grand Rapids, told stories of pioneering Black medical professionals in Michigan early in the 20th century. They faced the same continual racial adversities their patients did. Jelks displayed a picture of Black physicians at a Detroit hospital in 1922, alongside a diagram of the hospital showing where Black patients were treated separately from white patients. Black doctors had to be more than doctors: They also had to be social advocates. Grand Rapids’ first Black physician, Dr. Eugene S. Browning, founded an infant-wellness clinic dedicated to continual learning. A doctor and a dentist in Grand Rapids challenged the segregated seating policy of a movie theater and won their case in the Michigan Supreme Court in 1927.

Black health care professionals led the way for social transformation for their people, fighting for “the health of a community because it is being racially excluded.”

Professor Mockaitis reached back into history to note the “waves” of anti-Black violence touched off in times when whites felt threatened. But this expert on violent extremism, including white supremacy, also addressed current white violence. He showed several pictures of the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 and the “iconography” they displayed, including a swastika, a noose, the Confederate flag, and a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt. “Hate is on display here,” he said. “Bigots are equal opportunity haters.

“A larger pool of people,” however, don’t want to be seen as overt racists, according to Mockaitis.

They trade in their Klan robes, swastikas and the like for khakis and polo shirts and use coded, euphemistic language, saying, for example, that they are only “celebrating their European heritage.”

He said the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 was a “powerful stimulus to all of those with the white grievance narrative,” fueling increases in gun purchases and a dramatic increase in the number of hate organizations and membership during Obama’s two terms. The campaign and election of Donald Trump in 2016 brought “an empowerment narrative to this grievance narrative.” It is no coincidence how Hitler and the Nazis motivated people in the Weimar Republic of 1933 and how Trump motivated people during his time in office, Mockaitis said.

The “Hidden History” series was sponsored by Spectrum Health Lakeland and Lake Michigan Community College in cooperation with St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey.