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A legacy of economic oppression

Melvin B. Miller
A legacy of economic oppression
"Looks like Bernie doesn't want blacks to build wealth."

Political activists criticize the growing wealth disparity in America. In 2019, the 10% richest families owned 70% of the wealth while the poorest 50% owned less than 2%. Almost as an afterthought, progressives in the Democratic primary pointed out that blacks were disproportionately at the lower end of this statistic. Mike Bloomberg, who is unquestionably a billionaire, pointed out, with reference to the 1921 Greenwood Riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that there has been a repression of black economic development in America, and this practice has historically become accepted.

Wilmington Massacre of 1898

After the Civil War, whites who had defected and joined the Confederacy were generally removed from government posts. In some cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina, this created an extraordinary opportunity for business development by blacks. Around 1868, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, and 55% of its population was black. The Republican Party, which ran the government, was biracial. As skilled craftsmen and some qualified professionals, blacks were able to develop businesses.

In opposition to the black economic growth, whites decided to form a “White Supremacy” campaign in 1898. On Nov. 10, a group of 2,000 armed whites organized a coup and took over the duly elected interracial government of Wilmington. They are reported to have killed 60 to 300 people, and they also destroyed businesses and personal homes belonging to blacks.

Elaine Arkansas Massacre 1919

Phillips County, Arkansas is cotton country. Sharecroppers farm all year on the landlord’s land and receive payment for their services after harvest. Often the landlord adds questionable fees to increase the amount of his share. In order to avoid these phantom expenses, the sharecroppers decided to join the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America that could more efficiently arrange for the sale of the crops. The union was essentially an agricultural co-op.

When the sharecroppers came to a meeting in Elaine, Arkansas, in September 1919, the landowners had arranged for armed men to massacre them as they attempted to organize. Records indicate that five whites and 200 blacks were killed. Thereafter, the government prosecuted the black survivors as criminal assailants.

Tulsa Massacre in Greenwood on May 31, 1921

After the Civil War, blacks who had been living in the Confederacy states decided to move to a new life in Oklahoma, which did not even become a state until 1907. Until then, it was the Indian Territory, the place where Native American tribes from the South were forced to live.

Blacks built such a thriving community that it was called Black Wall Street, which became the envy of Tulsa. When blacks intervened to prevent the lynching of a young black man accused of sexual assault, a heated battle ensued. An estimated 50 whites and 150 blacks were killed, and 1,256 houses were looted and burned. The Greenwood district was destroyed.

Wilmington, Elaine Arkansas and Greenwood created historical records because they were racist massacres of substantial size. There were other similar events that created less attention because they were not as large. One example is the Rosewood Massacre on Jan. 1, 1923. A small village of black residents in Florida were slaughtered and their houses were burned to the ground by rampaging white extremists. The conflict was allegedly based upon a false contention.

In all of these accounts, the primary objective was to prevent or destroy economic progress by blacks. In Greenwood, the objective of white assailants was not to steal from blacks but to destroy the comfortable standard of living that blacks had established. The self-esteem of some whites seemed to require the penury of blacks.

There can be little progress for Democrats to close the wealth disparity of blacks without a dynamic plan to stimulate black entrepreneurship. Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative represents the only proposal for the development of a plan for black economic justice. It is specious to campaign for an end to the wealth disparity while also being hostile to business success.

It is well recognized that business growth in a capitalistic system is a major way to create wealth. It should come as no surprise to Bernie Sanders that his support of democratic socialism as opposed to capitalism has alienated many African Americans.

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