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The Shootings in North Tulsa, The Turley Connection, Good Friday and Easter

Commentary: Events Old and New and Easter on the Northside
This is a repost of an email, but updated now, which I sent out with our calendar of events just this past week, on Wednesday. It was about racism and poverty and our area and continuing struggles for justice for all of all races, and the challenges of our schools, and our history in far north Tulsa including the Turley area, and about some personal history with these issues. Two days after the email the issues were now national and worldwide news as five of our African American neighbors here were killed or injured in shooting in which two of our "white" neighbors have been arrested; one of those arrested had suffered from violence against his own family members in our area; it is so much proof of the truth that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

I hope that such Good Friday suffering and injustice as we have experienced here, and the Easter news about the arrests which we hope will bring some relief to our community, will all be just the first steps in some needed whole northside healing in this multi-ethnic community. The new demographics for the Turley area alone show that the white population is decreasing and is now at 56 percent and is projected to be down to 52 percent by 2015 and soon after that there will not be a single majority ethnic group here in our area, especially as the percentage of blacks and hispanics both are projected to increase in the coming years.

We see this diversity as a tremendous opportunity for growth in the area, economic and spiritual, but also of course as challenging. We are committed to fighting racism, as the sign on our front door says, and so I hope we can continue to be leaders in the healing process that is needed. I hope all community groups in our northside area can find ways to be together with one another in the coming days and weeks to show the world that the people who want to bring about a world free from oppression and racial injustice will stand up and stand with one another across the racial and ethnic divides and send a message to all that all the races who live together on the northside see ourselves as blessings to one another and to the world.

Here again are my comments sent out on Wednesday, part of a presentation I made on Turley and Far North Tulsa to two classes at the graduate social work department of OU in Tulsa. Much here is about our high school McLain which has been in the news, a school that was the last of those in Tulsa to get a community foundation to help support it and I am proud to have been on the start of that foundation and to serve on its board, but there is also much below about the Klan, Turley, and roots of our struggles which I hope will put even the events of the past few days into a bigger picture.

Today is the day back in 1968 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; it is also the day my father celebrates his 80th birthday. They both have taught me about race and justice and shape my work today. Let me talk about them in light of recent events about Trayvon Martin and also about our high school here, Tulsa McLain...

When the events unfolded in Memphis in 1968, and across the country afterwards, I was in school in the recently and newly integrated Monroe Junior High here on the northside. Tulsa schools and the city, and also our unincorporated community of Turley on the northside, had been seeded by racism and segregation, and also by people who all along were working to bring about justice and liberty for all, even here. Segregated schools had meant some of our near neighbors who were black had had to go to overcrowded and underfunded schools miles from their homes instead of to the newer schools built on the northside for the baby booming generation. When the federal courts forced Tulsa schools to act justly, the northside schools were the first to be integrated, each year more rapidly and fully. I was graduated by McLain High School in 1972, forty years ago, the year McLain elected its first black homecoming queen and while Booker T. Washington was in its final year of being a segregated high school. But we had little real multicultural education or conversation or official learning and guiding back then. What I remember especially of April 4 and the days after it here on the northside was fear and heightened drama and excitement, and adrenaline and testosterone in junior high students, and some of the racially-motivated violence that would come to be a fairly regular part of school life for all of us, regardless of ethnicity, for all of the years in junior and senior high school. But the non-violent spirit of Dr. King, the models of some of our teachers, and the friendships some of us made reaching across racial divides back then, amidst the culture of violence and us vs. them mentality, were also always present.

Those were the beginning days of the "white flight", that along with the changing economics and war on the working class, led to the emptying out of far north Tulsa which has lost more than 50 percent of its population, and resulting services and community organizations, since then. Realtors and banks seeking sales, and the new television culture that brought the biased views of violence elsewhere into all of the living rooms, all spread and fueled fear and racism through our neighborhoods like a prairie fire. It didn't take much. The fact that once the northside schools like McLain were integrated, and especially when the magnet program at the BTW high school also on the northside was begun and many of the academically gifted students whose brothers and sisters had gone to McLain were now going to BTW, the curriculum offerings at McLain began to be cut, its struggles began to be deepened as the community and the student body demographics changed and the struggles were highlighted in the media in ways that its continuing strengths were not. The cycle picked up that has continued to this day.

Changes at the school created change in the community; now changes needed at the school require changes in the community. There is a simple symmetry to it, but also a despair for the lack of will and directing resources that it will take to make the changes. Now the state department of education, which has in tandem with the state legislature been cutting funds to schools consistently, and cutting community resources consistently, is talking of a kind of state intervention in McLain, or at best guided partnership. No one is too sure yet what will be done. We know this: McLain has only been on the needs to improve list at the state level for one of the past several years, this year, where other Tulsa high schools have been on the list for six of seven years, but there was outrage when talk of intervention by the state was mentioned for other schools. And we know this: that the standardized test scores at McLain reflect the students backgrounds leading into their years at McLain; they are behind in reading when they get to McLain, and McLain actually over the four years that those who will stay in school stay there catch them up so that a high percentage of those who are graduated by McLain are going on to college. And we know this: an accreditation team just this past month reviewed the operations at McLain and gave the school an overall good rating for its educational efforts. And we know this: transformation takes time and intentionality, and bold beyond the box thinking, and commitment of resources. And so I am hopeful that this new attention to McLain will build on its current strengths (which as history on the northside has shown are always undernoted in favor of a "fix the problem" mentality that perpetuates the anxiety and problem), and will at the same time break down boundaries between school and community, and neighborhoods, so that the healing of the community will become the focus, and the school transformations will be seen as a way to do that, for that is where the lasting change will come. Focusing on communities by McLain, and focusing on the schools feeding into McLain, and doing something about stopping the "brain drain" of students who live by McLain but who transfer to other public and public charter schools out of our community, a fact which with the increasing privatization of what once was loftily called "common education" for a "common society", is increasing the fragmentation of our neighborhoods, focusing on all of those "beyond McLain" things will have the greatest impact on McLain itself. While pumping in resources of time, talents, and definitely treasure into McLain and its strengths and giving it permission to teach not to test but to transformation, to make the last first, will help change the community.
Which brings me to my Dad celebrating 80 years today. Dad was born 80 years ago at home literally in the shadow of the Turley High School building, the old red brick building that was torn down a few years ago on the Cherokee School property, a school now abandoned too. That three story building erected in 1920 was built at a time when Oklahoma was in the throes of control by the Ku Klux Klan; it was a time near the time of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921; the Klan was controlling who was in the Governor's Mansion; there were sundown towns, and although the Turley area was not officially incorporated, it was certainly an unofficial sundown town perhaps made moreso because of the black families, and the freedmen families, that lived not too far away especially after the 1921 massacre and the exodus or refugees. My dad often told me he was raised prejudiced in that environment, the air in which he breathed, and his Dad was a member of the Klan, but that he did not want to pass on the prejudice and racism to his own kids, and instead was committed to breaking the cycle. His own Christian faith understanding of all as children of God, the role models of others in the family and elsewhere, all worked against that racism that seemed so inherent here, but it was not and could not have been easy; he remained in relationship with racists while refusing to let them set the culture for us and his community. When others fled in fear and fed into the prejudices of white flight, he intentionally remained on the northside even though he had to drive further over time to get to work and back, and he kept working in and with and for the northside. He became one of the first coaches of integrated sports teams on the northside; to this day I have many of my African American friends from those days ask me how he is doing, and tell me how important it was that he opened his life and our home, and went into their homes, became friends with their parents, coached with their fathers, especially at that time in their lives and the life of our wider community; and he often still asks me about them, how they are doing.

And he was and is concerned about the white kids too, those whose poverty and whose broken families or struggling families have made their education difficult, and who have not been able to find supportive community here in our community. His concern reminds me of the concern expressed by the also in his 80s African American civil rights leader John Perkins who said he most felt worried about the poor white kids who were left in the abandoned places of Empire because they had no community to turn toward, their white churches had left them for the suburbs, they had nothing like the black church in the neighborhood that could be alternatives to nurture; their test scores were just as bad; their dropout rates as bad; plus he said they had the shame increased that they were minorities now themselves, struggling culturally as outcasts, feeling that there was something wrong with them or else they would be living elsewhere, all conditions he says that makes them too easily turn toward racist groups like the Klan. We seek to be a place that sends out a different signal here in our abandoned place, our area of high ethnic diversity, that we embrace it not try to fight it.

Our area is the kind of area that Trayvon Martin was "supposed" to be in; here he would not have been seen as "different" and "dangerous." And so I believe his killing seems to have been as much about the way society has created social locations and stereotyped people within them as it was about other stereotypes. If we did not have the abandoned places, where we abandon people too, then he would not have been "out of place" in the gated community. I have called for people wishing to show support in his spirit, especially those of privilege living in safe communities, to do more than wear hoodies to the safe places in their lives; they need to come erase the dangerous places where he was socially relegated to; they need to come here where they too might be in the minority and feel the kind of discomfort to a degree that he might have and increase their own comfort zone by shopping here, walking through neighborhoods here, playing with their kids here, working with others here. In this way, we grow ourselves and grow the spirit of abundance in our community.

We are heading into the Easter weekend once again. This time of celebrating the journey of community and our bonds of love (maundy thursday), of facing our heartbreak and our betrayal, our violence, our turning away and denying justice (good friday), when we open ourselves up to all the grief and all the abandonment and the fears we have to face, and of the easter kind of surprise that comes in the ways small and great that people and this place continue to be hopeful, hopeful gardeners of the spirit as the poet says when new life and healing leaps up in our midst, when projects begin to take off when they have been plateaued, when new partners are made, when people find a second wind in their lives and find it in giving of themselves to others, and when that second wind in our lives begins to let us breathe again a little easier in our lives. In the past year here since just one Easter ago, in so many ways we have chronicled, we have had the wind knocked out of us as a community, and yet we are breathing again, sometimes deeply, and helping others to find breathing space too.

Thanks for your partnership, blessings on all you do, and more to come in the weeks ahead. Stay in touch,