Several prominent Black Tulsans have called for U.S. Sen. James Lankford’s removal or resignation from the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Committee because of his involvement in last week’s doubtful efforts to delay, discredit or even overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s certification as the next president of the United States.
Lankford, a Republican, has been active on the committee and is credited with helping raise the centennial’s profile nationally and building relationships with powerful white conservatives in Oklahoma.
But Black Tulsa leaders say Lankford compromised the commission by advocating a 10-day delay in certifying the electoral votes in Biden’s favor so a commission could further investigate challenges lodged by President Donald Trump.
“This is a great example of black people voting in record numbers, with a coalition of people who look different, who are being told, ‘No, their votes didn’t count,’” said state Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.
Lankford said he never considered that asking for an election review could have racial overtones.
Now, he said, he understands differently.
“I was shocked (when Black friends) said to me, ‘This was about keeping African Americans from voting.’ My comment to them was, ‘That never crossed my mind. Why would I do that? Why would I think that?’
“I’ve had some time now to visit with them and to hear them out, and I understand where they’re coming from,” Lankford said.
“Some people caught me and said, ‘Let me describe it to you this way’ — and they were spot on with this — ‘You hear the president say, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania are problems. We hear the president say, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia are problems.’
“And I said, ‘You’re exactly correct. I hear what you’re saying now.’”
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, has had a good relationship with Lankford but says the senator completely misjudged African Americans’ perception of the election and politics in general.
“Let me tell you what racism feels like to Black people,” Matthews said. “When you tell us the rules and why we can’t be president before (Barack) Obama or vice president, we have to jump through these hoops, and as we’re jumping through the hoops you move the goalposts. And you keep moving them. And when we get to the goalposts, you want to check our ID and our credentials over and over and over.
“We have a black woman (Sen. Kamala Harris), the first black woman with an opportunity to be vice president and possible opportunity to be president — she’s at least next in line — and now is when we want to put out all of these extra alarms? That’s what Black people think.”
Lankford says Harris is “a friend of mine” and he never intended to overturn the presidential election. Instead, he said, he was trying to start “an ongoing debate” about election security and has been “lumped in” with “people doing something very different.”
After rioters identified as Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, Lankford dropped his objection and voted to certify the Electoral College results.
But back in Tulsa, Lankford’s actions were seen as a betrayal by Black Tulsans whose trust he’d worked years to cultivate.
“When Trump was on his way (last summer) to Oklahoma for Juneteenth (June 19), I called Sen. Matthews and said, ‘Hey, you need to talk to Lankford.’ I didn’t choose anybody else. ... Lankford is willing to listen,” said Black Wall Street Times Publisher Nehemiah Frank.
By several accounts, Lankford helped defuse what could have been a volatile situation that, in the end, resulted in Trump delaying his appearance for a day and staying away from the traditional Greenwood District.
He has spoken about the massacre several times on the Senate floor and had public forums in Greenwood.
But while Nichols and Frank say Lankford deserves credit for his efforts, they also say he should resign or be removed from the committee. They say their trust is shaken by Lankford’s decision to give any credence to claims that no court or election authority has accepted.
“I do believe Lankford has some integrity,” said Frank. “I do. And I think he tries to be strategic in how he moves. But not at the price of Black people being harmed.”
To some extent, the anger directed toward Lankford is because he has been more visible than some members. First District Congressman Kevin Hern is also on the committee but has attracted little attention, despite actually voting on Wednesday to reject some election results.
The situation illustrates the difficulties confronting the centennial committee as it tries to pull together many disparate interests, entities and people to create the message of reconciliation that is its mission statement.
Put another way, it’s a matter of how strongly individuals can disagree and still work together — a situation not unlike that in Washington.
Matthews said he will let Lankford and the committee members decide, after a cooling off period, where they come down on that. But he does say more than one member would have trouble passing a purity test.
“If people start digging and reading,” Matthews said, refusing to name names, “there would be a bunch of people not on this (committee).”
The situation also illustrates the political realities of Black Tulsans and other minorities in Oklahoma, as Matthews knows well. When issues are reduced to race, the math just doesn’t add up.
As Lankford said again this week, his election commission proposal attempted to address the concerns of constituents who, correctly or not, seem convinced or at least suspicious about the election results in other states.
Presumably Trump voters, these constituents are mostly white, and just about all likely voters in the 2022 Republican primary, when Lankford’s current term ends.
By contrast, few Republican primary votes are to be found among Black Tulsans.
“We don’t want this to end up being a political us versus them,” said Matthews. “I think that takes away from the work of reconciliation.”
Tulsa Race Massacre: Frequently asked questions answered