HBO’s Watchmen Tackles the 1921 Tulsa Massacre

By: Lisa McCray | October 22, 2019

Image courtesy of HBO.

When sci-fi fans watched Sunday night’s season premiere of HBO’s Watchmen they were thrust immediately into the bloody 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In the show’s opening scene, cameras followed a young, black boy who is carried by his mother outside a movie theatre and directly into the carnage. Black people are lit on fire, dragged through the streets, and shot on sight.

Based on the wildly popular graphic novel of the same name, “Watchmen” is set in an alternate version of our history. The show is fiction, but the massacre depicted on screen was very real.

“Before the massacre, Greenwood had a population of more than 100,000 black people, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center’s history of the community. It was home to luxury shops, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, a hospital, a savings and loan, a post office, three hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, two movie theaters, a library, pool halls, a bus and cab service, a nationally recognized school system, six private airplanes and two black newspapers,” writes Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown.

Greenwood was successful not in spite of but because of the Jim Crow laws that restricted its residents. Black people were forced to keep their money in black hands and people in Greenwood flourished.

N. D. B. Connolly, Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History says there is lots to learn from the riot, including the racial power structures upon which the United States is built, and how that system directly connects to the political environment in which we live today.

In a phone call Monday afternoon, Connolly explained that the Tulsa Race Massacre began with a black man being accused of rape. When white residents planned to break the man out of the prison where he was being held to lynch him, black middle class residents, many of whom were armed and had military training, stood guard outside the jail and stopped the lynching. From there, the incident exploded into what turned out to be a systematic take down of black economic power in the Tulsa community.

“Where do white people get to, just by virtue of existing and being citizens, get to embody state authority?” he said over the phone Monday, talking about the incident.

“It’s really important to highlight is the surgical nature of the violence, because we tend to think about mobs moving through areas and just kind of indiscriminately bombing and looting. But what’s actually happening is you have white employees who are directly targeting their black employers.”

Connelly said that white people saw themselves as correcting the wrong of white people being economically dependent on black people. He also said that you can see the same fear, anger, and violence reflected in American politics and the reaction to President Barack Obama’s election, followed by Trump’s.

“The white part gets oftentimes removed, but when you hear conservatives talking about Second Amendment rights, when you hear them talking about ‘the American people don’t want universal health care,’ when you hear them talking about ‘the American people want to see Barack Obama’s birthright,’ it’s very much about this tradition of white popular sovereignty,” Connolly says. “That is a very clear double standard. That is what the Republican party in general has been banking on since basically the 1960s. And certainly what Donald Trump was banking on when he began to fashion his political aspirations.”

In this case, he says, Obama’s presidency delegitimized American government.

“And many people, when they resort to violence they do so only when it’s believed that there has been some form of state failure, that the government is no longer doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said.

“Because when Obama desegregates the presidency, it basically shows that it’s time for the mob to make the government right again, time for there to be some grassroots bottom up correction of the state not doing its job.”

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