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Tulsa race riot examined in new film Documentary debuts today on Cinemax

Mel Bracht Published: May 31, 2000

THE TULSA race riot of 1921, believed to be our country's deadliest race riot, is remembered in a powerful documentary that debuts at 5:30 p.m. today on Cine max.

Although the official death toll was placed at 36, the Red Cross and some historians placed the actual count at more than 300. Thousands of black residents were detained in camps. More than 40 blocks of the prosperous Greenwood community, known as "Little Africa" in the film, were looted and burned.

Tulsa filmmaker Michael Wilkerson details the horrors of Oklahoma's holocaust in "The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story" through interviews with survivors and historians and extensive research.

An impressive array of actors - including Tulsa natives Alfre Woodard and Mary Kay Place, Bill Cosby, Ed Asner and Mike Farrell - brings firsthand accounts of the riot and its aftermath to life.

Most of those accounts are from a journal from the late Mary Parrish, played by Woodard, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson, a former agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said he was inspired to tackle the project because a colleague had discovered accounts of the long-forgotten riot at the library and from a conversation with Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., on an airline flight five years ago.

"She shared with me some pretty intimate details about the time Dr. King was spirited away by local law enforcement down in the South," Wilkerson said. "She experienced the horror and dread of not knowing where your people were and fearing that they were dead."

Wilkerson said Coretta King learned through a phone call with President John F. Kennedy that her husband was being held in a Southern jail.

Wilkerson's film sets the stage for a similar injustice against black Americans. After World War I, black veterans were viewed with suspicion because of their desire to experience more of the freedom that they had seen in Europe, according to the film.

The Ku Klux Klan, revived by the popular movie "Birth of a Nation," was flourishing with about 3,000 members in Tulsa, and lynchings were common.

White residents and Klan members were envious of the prosperity of Greenwood, which had earned a national reputation as a "Black Wall Street."

On May 31, 1921, a 19-year-old black man was jailed, accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. Historians believe Dick Rowland may have stumbled against the woman, who accused him of rape. An editorial in the Tulsa Tribune encouraged the lynching of Rowland.

A few blacks decided to stand their ground against a possible lynching. Their defiance was greeted by mob anger, resulting in the mass killings and the wholesale burning and looting.

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