'Hell was unleashed'

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden called for the U.S. to "come to terms" with the darkest moments of its history Tuesday during a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, 100 years after a white mob burned the city's "Black Wall Street" to the ground, killing hundreds of Black Americans and forcing thousands from their homes. 

Biden brought a national spotlight to the Tulsa Race Massacre, long neglected and glossed over in history books, becoming the first president to visit Tulsa on an anniversary of the bloodiest race massacre in U.S. history. 

“I come here to help fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen," Biden said. 

In a speech that bluntly talked about racism in America, Biden made a "through-line" from the massacre of Tulsa 100 years later to a weekend in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a white nationalist rally with tiki torches,  racist chants and violence.

He also announced Vice President Kamala Harris will lead an effort aimed at protecting voting rights, saying the right to vote "is under assault with incredible intensity like I’ve never seen" in the face of restrictive Republican-led voting measures in state legislatures.

Biden arrived in Tulsa in the afternoon, toured the Greenwood Cultural Center and met with the three remaining survivors of the massacre, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, who are 101 to 107 years old.

"You are the three known remaining survivors seen in the mirror dimly. But no longer," Biden said. "Now your story will be known in full view. The events we speak of today took place 100 years ago, and yet I'm the first president in 100 years ever to come to Tulsa.

Describing the events, Biden said, "Hell was unleashed. Literal hell was unleashed." He noted how private planes dropped explosives on the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. And he said victims of the massacre were unable to get reimbursed for their losses through insurance and no one was prosecuted for taking part in the mob. 

"My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre. Among the worst in our history but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory, our collective memory."

After the speech, Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign led a group, including the survivors of the massacre, in singing the civil rights anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." The songs lyrics read, in part: "ain't gonna let no racism turn me around."

Biden announced a slate of policies meant to promote racial equity before the trip. That includes a new interagency effort meant to combat housing discrimination, as well as directives that will increase federal contracting with small, minority-owned businesses by $100 billion over the next five years.

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John Spacey

John Spacey