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Biden honors Tulsa race massacre survivors 100 years on

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(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at an annual Memorial Day Service at Veterans Memorial Park, Delaware Memorial Bridge, New Castle, Delaware, U.S., May 30, 2021. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

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By Jeff Mason

TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) -Joe Biden on Tuesday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Tulsa, Oklahoma, site where hundreds of Black Americans were massacred by a white mob in 1921, as he marked the country’s legacy of racial violence.

Biden oversaw a moment of silence for the victims after meeting with three people who lived in the district during the massacre – Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle – and toured a museum dedicated to the incident.

“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence,” Biden said.

“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre, and among the worst in our history. But not the only one.”

His administration also planned steps to combat inequality. They include efforts to expand federal contracting with small, disadvantaged businesses, invest tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood that suffer from persistent poverty and pursue new efforts to combat housing discrimination.

Now between the ages of 101 and 107, the survivors who met with Biden asked Congress for “justice” this year and are parties to a lawsuit against state and local officials seeking several remedies for the massacre, including a victim compensation fund.

“What these survivors have endured is tragic and devastating,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on the flight to Oklahoma on Tuesday.

But Biden did not answer a reporter’s question about whether there should be an official U.S. presidential apology for the incident in which as many as 300 people were killed.

His spokeswoman did not say whether the president would discuss whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of people who were affected.

Biden plans to address the U.S. legacy of racist violence, and the challenges to unity ahead, an administration official said. Biden cannot fulfill his promise to restore the “soul” of the nation without recognizing the complexity of U.S. history, the official said.

In a proclamation on Monday, Biden asked all Americans to “reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our Nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country.”

His visit comes during a racial reckoning in the United States as the country’s white majority shrinks, threats increase from white supremacist groups and the country re-examines its treatment of African Americans after last year’s murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, sparked nationwide protests.

Biden, a Democrat who won the presidency partly on the strength of Black voter support, made fighting racial inequality a key platform of his 2020 campaign and has done the same during his short tenure in the White House. He met last week with members of Floyd’s family on the anniversary of his death and is pushing for passage of a police reform bill that bears Floyd’s name.

Biden’s trip to Tulsa offered a sharp contrast to a year ago, when then-President Donald Trump, a Republican who criticized Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements, planned a political rally in Tulsa on June 19, the “Juneteenth” anniversary that celebrates the end of U.S. slavery in 1865. The rally was postponed after criticism.

Public awareness about the killings in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921, which were not taught in history classes or reported by local newspapers for decades, has grown in recent years.

White residents shot and killed up to 300 Black people and burned and looted homes and businesses, devastating a prosperous African-American community after a white woman accused a Black man of assault, an allegation that was never proven.

Insurance companies did not cover the damages and no one was charged for the violence.

“It is necessary that we share with each generation the past and the significant imperfection of inequality,” said Frances Jordan-Rakestraw, executive director of the Greenwood Cultural Center, a museum about the massacre visited by Biden.

Biden won his party’s nomination last year largely because of Black voters, whose support helped him clinch a critical early primary contest in South Carolina.

He earned goodwill from Black voters as vice president under Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, and chose Kamala Harris, the child of a Black father from Jamaica and an Indian mother, to be his running mate.

But he also came under fire during the 2020 campaign for opposition to school busing programs in the 1970s that helped integrate American schools. Biden sponsored a 1994 crime bill that civil rights experts say contributed to a rise in mass incarceration and defended his work with two Southern segregationist senators during his days in the U.S. Senate.

The Tulsa visit would be a meaningful time to announce a presidential commission to “explore the history of America’s racial atrocities, and bring forth proposals for racial justice,” said William Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University, who co-wrote “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twentieth Century.”

Biden “supports a study of reparations, but believes first and foremost the task in front of us is to root out systemic racism,” spokeswoman Jean-Pierre said.

Racial justice also figures in the growing battle over voting rights. Multiple Republican-led states, arguing for a need to bolster election security, have passed or proposed voting restrictions, which Biden and other Democrats say are aimed at making it harder for Black voters to cast ballots.