Oklahoma Senator James Lankford’s role in propelling riots by pro-Trump extremists has prompted many Oklahomans, particularly Black Oklahomans, to challenge his position on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, an organization that oversees activities related to the commemoration of this tragic event in Tulsa history. The Commission ultimately decided to allow Lankford to remain a member of their body, but many continue to call for his resignation.
Lankford was speaking on the Senate floor when a pro-Trump mob forced their way into the chamber. As this happened, Lankford was in the middle of challenging the certification of the Presidential election in Arizona, seeking to delegitimize the victory of President Biden. Courts had already thrown out allegations of fraud and irregularities and all 50 states’ election boards confirmed the election; despite this, Lankford and several other Republican senators challenged the confirmation of the election by claiming a need for “more election information.”
Following the incidents at the Capitol, Lankford and other initial challengers dropped objections against the results of the election. Lankford released a statement urging the “need [for] the entire Congress to come together and vote to certify the election results.” A few representatives including Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley maintained their opposition after Jan. 6.
Despite changing his position on the validity of the election, many Black Oklahomans voiced outrage at Lankford’s support of false claims of fraud actively disempowered Black voters. Challenges to election results would amount to the invalidation of votes from predominantly Black and Democratic areas. State Representative Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa commented, “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.’”
With this in mind, the Tulsa community and Centennial Commission members called for his resignation or removal from the Committee. Black Wall Street Times first reported demands for resignation: Editor-in-Chief Nehemiah Frank wrote, “Restorative justice is not possible if we choose to placate white elected officials who only portray themselves as allies when they feel it is politically expedient.” Tulsa activist Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, who served as a senior advisor in Greg Robinson’s campaign for Tulsa mayor, made a Facebook post demanding that “Sen. James Lankford resign from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission NOW!” Robinson posted, “If he doesn’t (resign), then he should be removed.”
In a letter addressed to “My Friends in North Tulsa,” Lankford apologized for the implications of his opposition to the election; he claimed to not realize his challenges in battleground states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan “cast doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit.”
Some viewed this letter as a feeble attempt at apology. Lankford wrote, “I should have recognized how what I said and what I did could be interpreted by many of you,” seeming to apologize not for his actions, but for how these actions were interpreted. With this, a Black Oklahoma state official who remained anonymous told CNN reporter Abby Phillips that Lankford “did NOT apologize for questioning the Electoral College vote. He expressed regret that (many) Black Tulsans were offended by his actions.”
Despite controversy regarding this apology letter, the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission decided to allow Lankford to remain a part of their body. Meetings leading up to this decision involved more than 40 people on the Commission; although the decision to retain Lankford was not unanimous, a letter issued by the Commission concluded that “Senator Lankford, despite clear differences (some of them profound), stands on common ground with us in terms of the importance of reconciliation as well as educating all United States citizens about Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, the storied ‘Black Wall Street,’ including the massacre and its impact on Oklahoma and the nation.”
Many of those initially calling for Lankford’s removal were dismayed by this decision and continue to call for his resignation. While the Commission decided to “extend an olive branch” to Lankford, this controversy raises questions about the responsibility and accountability that cannot be answered with the resolution of this issue alone. Rather, Lankford’s position on the 2020 election has led to mistrust that he must reconcile in order to be able to effectively contribute to the Commission and to represent all of his constituents’ interests.