On May 30, 1921, a young Black man entered an elevator in downtown Tulsa. At one point he was alone with its white female operator. It’s unclear what happened next, but the operator screamed and the man fled the scene. He was arrested the next day.
Rumors spread through Tulsa’s white community. A story published in the Tulsa Tribune on May 31 claimed that the man had attempted to rape the woman. An angry white mob gathered in front of the courthouse, demanding that the man be turned over to them. Seeking to prevent a lynching, a group of seventy-five Black men arrived on the scene, some of them World War I veterans who were carrying weapons. A white man tried to disarm a Black veteran; the gun went off and chaos broke out.
Over the next twenty-four hours, thousands of white rioters poured into the Greenwood District, a prosperous area known as “Black Wall Street.” It was home to more than three hundred Black-owned businesses, including doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and two movie theaters. The white rioters shot unarmed Black citizens in the streets and burned an area of some thirty-five city blocks. As many as three hundred people were killed in the rampage, which destroyed more than twelve hundred Black-owned houses, numerous businesses, a school, a hospital, and a dozen churches.
By noon on June 1, the Greenwood District lay in ruins.
The 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riot documents a chronology of the horrific massacre. It states that while many of the victims’ stories are unknown, some can be reported. Among them: “Dr. A. C. Jackson, a renowned African American physician, was fatally wounded in his front yard after he had surrendered to a group of whites. Shot in the stomach, he later died at the National Guard Armory.”
The commission reported: “Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, county, state, or federal.”
“Their widows were being neglected”
I hope to persuade us to take two biblical steps in response to the racial divisions, discrimination, and violence that persist in our nation. We will explore the first step today and the second step tomorrow.
Our text is Acts 6:1–7, which begins: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1).
The “Hellenists” were Greek-speaking Jews, likely part of the fifteen demographic groups identified in Acts 2:9–11. They had been living abroad but traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, stayed for Pentecost, and came to Christ as part of the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit that led three thousand people to faith (Acts 2:14–41). Now they were living in Jerusalem along with the “Hebrews,” native Palestinian Jews whose primary language was Aramaic.
Over time, some among the Hellenists felt that their “widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” of food and resources for those in need. This complaint was symptomatic of racial or cultural discrimination that could have torn the infant church into warring factions.
Recognizing the danger, the apostles acted immediately, calling the church to select leaders who would respond redemptively to this crisis (Acts 6:2–3).
A contemptible sermon
The first Christians, many of whom had known the Lord Jesus personally and were led by the apostles themselves, found themselves dealing with racism and discrimination. From this fact we learn this painful but vital fact: none of us is immune from the sin of racism. It is a cancer that plagues the fallen human condition and must be treated with urgent vigilance.
If you’re a white American like me, you’re tempted to grieve the Tulsa Race Massacre but minimize its relevance a century later. Surely such an attack on Black people was an isolated event, many would like to believe.
Except that it wasn’t.
For the anniversary of the Tulsa tragedy, CNN documented numerous acts of racial violence across the country against Asians, Hispanics, and Blacks. A new study shows the damaging impact of anti-Black violence on the mental health of Black Americans. Yesterday, a New York City art gallery named Black Wall Street was defaced on the one hundredth anniversary of the massacre.
Pastors are not immune from the horrific sin of racism. For example, David French quotes the Rev. Harold Cooke of Centenary Methodist Church in Tulsa, who made this contemptible statement in his sermon following the 1921 massacre: “The colored man is a colored man and a white man is a white man, and there can never be anything like social equality between the races. Many negroes realize this and are the better element of the colored race.”
“Why aren’t his hands healing?”
I want to urge you to respond to today’s Daily Article by doing what the first Christians did when confronted with the sin of discrimination: assess yourself honestly.
Ask God if racism is a problem for you. We are warned to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22), so ask the Holy Spirit to expose any attitudes, words, and/or actions that are discriminatory toward those of another race.
Then ask a friend of a different race if they believe racism is a problem for you. Invite your friend to give you an honest assessment. If necessary, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Now ask God to forgive the racist sins of our nation. God called his people to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers” (Leviticus 26:40). Nehemiah confessed the sins of his people (Nehemiah 1:5–7), as did Daniel (Daniel 9:3–19). Jesus grieved for the unbelief of his day and the judgment it would bring (Luke 13:34–35).
These lyrics by Casting Crowns convict me every time I hear them:
If we are the body,
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?
Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ.
NOTE: For more on God’s presence in suffering, please see my new website article, “A Bible carried through eleven Army tours: Where is God when some don’t come home?”