News reporters and anchors have repeatedly referred to the recent tragedy in Las Vegas as the “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” Like all things that are constantly repeated, the proclamation has become fact.
In 2013 a report by the Congressional Research Service defined a public mass shooting (pdf) this way:
incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths—not including the shooter(s)—and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately. The violence in these cases is not a means to an end such as robbery or terrorism.
So, according to that broad definition, we wondered: Is 64-year-old Stephen Paddock the worst mass shooter in the long history of America? Does the Las Vegas incident qualify as the “deadliest” mass-shooting incident?
Only if you don’t count black people.
On Monday, The Root 100 honoree and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe tweeted this:
Las Vegas shooting isn’t deadliest mass shooting in US history. The deadliest mass shootings were acts of white supremacist terrorism. (1/x)
— Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey) October 2, 2017
He is right. The nearsightedness of America’s historical vision is not only hyperbolic, but that vision often has a blind spot when it comes to people of color. There are countless incidents in which black and brown people were killed in incidents far worse than what happened in Vegas. Here are some of them:
The Bombing of Black Wall Street
On June 1, 1921, white rioters looted and burned the black area of Tulsa, Okla., known as Black Wall Street. Angry at the economic success of blacks in the area (the area became known as “Black Wall Street” because of the number of successful businesses and wealthy black inhabitants), white Tulsans accused a black man of raping a girl and attacked the area.
While white citizens used dynamite and planes to bomb the city, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless, eyewitness accounts charge that the vast majority of the people killed (estimates range from 80 to 300) died because the city’s law-enforcement officers deputized every able-bodied white man and handed out weapons from the city’s armory.
Historian Scott Greensworth describes it this way:
Shortly after the fighting had broken out at the courthouse, a large number of whites – many of whom had only a little while earlier been members of the would-be lynch mob — gathered outside of police headquarters on Second Street. There, perhaps as many as five-hundred white men and boys were sworn-in by police officers as “Special Deputies.” Some were provided with badges or ribbons indicating their new status. Many, it appears, also were given specific instructions. According to Laurel G. Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn-in as one of these ‘Special Deputies”, a police officer bluntly told him to “Get a gun and get a nigger.”
Shortly thereafter, whites began breaking into downtown sporting goods stores, pawnshops, and hardware stores, stealing — or “borrowing” as some would later claim — guns and ammunition … a Tulsa police officer helped to dole out the guns that were taken from his store.
More bloodshed soon followed, as whites began gunning down any African Americans that they discovered downtown.
There is no official death toll, but most historians agree that the count was around 250, because many African Americans were buried in mass graves, while others fled the city. No one was ever convicted of a single crime.
Bloody Island Massacre
In the mid-1800s, Charles Stone and Andre Kelsey began enslaving the Native American Pomo of Clearlake, Calif. They forced the Pomo to bring them their daughters for sexual pleasure. They killed the Pomo for trying to escape. They only “paid them” 4 cups of wheat per day. One day, two of the Pomo, Shuk and Xasis, went to look for more food, borrowing Stone and Kelsey’s horses. When it became apparent that they wouldn’t find food, the men knew that Stone and Kelsey would kill them if they found out that they had used their horses, so they killed Stone and Kelsey instead.
Capt. Nathaniel Lyon was searching for the men to punish them and brought soldiers and white civilians. When they found members of the Pomo tribe hiding on Bloody Island, near Clearlake, they slaughtered 60 of the island’s 400 inhabitants. On their way back, they killed another 75 on the Russia River for good measure.
Lyon was never disciplined.
On April 13, 1873, black people in Colfax, La., began gathering at the courthouse and digging trenches. They were afraid that whites, disgruntled by Republican rule and a court decision that allowed blacks to vote, were about to attack. A civilian militia of angry white men surrounded the courthouse and convinced the blacks to hand in their weapons and surrender. The black citizens complied.
And that’s when the massacre started.
As many as 40 times more blacks were killed than whites. They invaded the courthouse and killed unarmed men. They hunted down women and children trying to hide in the surrounding woods. They dumped bodies in the river. They took 50 prisoners but later summarily killed them one by one. Historian Eric Foner called it “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era … ”
At least 150 black citizens were killed. Three white men died. No one was ever convicted of a crime.
In 1887 nearly 100,000 black sugar-plantation workers in Thibodaux, La., decided to protest their unfair treatment, low wages and the holding of workers’ wages until the end of the season, forcing them into a kind of indentured servitude.
In response, Judge Taylor Beattie, who owned a sugar plantation, declared martial law and paid a 300-man private militia to keep the peace. The militia ordered every black person in the city to show a pass or leave. The blacks who didn’t were rounded up with their families and executed. In all, between 35 and 100 blacks were killed. The count is not official because some bodies were burned.
No one was ever … do I have to keep saying this?
The Elaine Massacre
In 1919, black sharecroppers gathered outside of Elaine, Ark., to listen to Robert L. Hill explain how sharecropping was unfair and to advocate for voting rights. The meeting was guarded by Union troops, but when white men showed up at the meeting, shots were exchanged. The sheriff then called for a posse to find the people responsible.
Five hundred to 1,000 white men rushed in from across the country to hunt down the killers and quell the “Negro insurrection.” When it was over, 237 black people were dead. Then all-white juries charged and sentenced 12 blacks to death. Another 36 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and 67 were convicted of other crimes.
Three white people died.
We will not count the 1864 Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee, when Confederate troops mowed down 164 black soldiers who were surrendering, because that is officially a war crime. The same goes for the 1864 Saltville Massacre in Virginia. The Achulet Massacre of Native Americans in California in 1854 doesn’t count, either, because they were killed for their land, so technically that is a robbery. Some say as many as 150 were killed in Rosewood, Fla., in 1923, but the official count is six.
The mass deaths at Philadelphia’s MOVE headquarters in 1985 don’t make the list because law-enforcement officers bombed the men, women and children living there. And the time whites nearly wiped out the Wiyot Native American tribe in 1860 doesn’t belong on this list because the Wiyot were killed with knives and hatchets as well as guns.
While all loss of life is tragic, on the scale of white people killing people of color, Paddock wouldn’t even make the all-star team. But, like all mediocre white guys, regardless of historical facts, he will be thought of as “great.”