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Tulsa, 1921: Learning From History

By: on June 7, 2021
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1921 Tulsa Race Massacre 

May 31st  commemorates the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, avoided in most school courses and books on American history. The neighborhood in which it occurred was called Greenwood. This attack could certainly be deemed the 911 for the Black community in America.  During two days about 300 Black people were randomly and ruthlessly killed by white mobs. Even airplanes were used in this calculated assault.  Over a thousand homes were looted and destroyed, including four churches, and the entire downtown business section. At the time,  this Black business section created so much prosperity for Greenwood that it was dubbed “Black Wall Street.”

To make it official, much of the mob had even been deputized, and afterward, none of them were ever charged with any crimes. And to add insult to injury, some  Black property and business owners were charged with inciting a riot and had to flee the state. After the massacre, many Black citizens were rounded up at gunpoint and placed in internment camps. Insurance claims from Greenwood home and business owners were denied. The Black community never received any justice nor compensation.

Tulsa was by no means an isolated incident. There were countless random attacks and hangings of Blacks, especially in a white South intent on keeping a once enslaved people terrorized and disempowered. This continued unabashedly for almost a century after the Civil War.  The perpetrators often offered lame excuses and rationalizations for their atrocities.  And often, the local and national governments were complicit - especially in their deafening silence, if nothing else.

Some might smugly suggest, “it was their (the victims) karma.” Of course, there is the law of karma. And while this understanding of karma should be taught, no leader or Vaisnava should ever level such a charge against someone to minimize or discredit their suffering, or even to justify the actions of the perpetrators. 

Actually, it is the duty of the leaders of society (kshatriyas) that all the citizens are happy and that justice is served.  No civilized society would tolerate the heinous acts of Tulsa, 1921. But unfortunately,  in this age known as the Kali-yuga, we have only pretend leaders.

In the Ninth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.10.51), commenting on the varnashrama structure in Lord Ramacandra’s ideal kingdom, Srila Prabhupada writes: “Among the four yugas [ages]—Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali—Kali-yuga is the worst, but if the process of varnashrama-dharma is introduced, even in this age of Kali, the situation of Satya-yuga (the Age of Goodness) can be invoked. The Krishna consciousness movement is meant for this purpose.”

One of Srila Prabhupada’s last requests before he left this world in 1977: “I also want you to organize varnasrama society [the Vedic social structure]. Divide society: brahmana [intellectual class], ksatriya [administrators], and so on. There should be social division, just as there is a division of the different parts of our body. This will help people. . . .  This is our mission: whatever we have, teach others. The whole world is filled with distress.”Back to Godhead. Volume 13,  #102, 1978

So the devotees can utilize current events, historic events, and societal concerns, to help people understand what genuine leadership is and what a healthy society should look like. Just as Srila Prabhupada established a brahminical community, it is imperative for the brahmanas to train proper leaders to help further construct the varnashrama system.  

He wanted the devotees to implement the Varnashrama system in society so all the citizens could benefit both materially and spiritually.  For this to take place, we cannot change society from without but must engage in society, and provide people with a positive role model.  In this regard, Krishna’s instruction in Bhagavad Gita 3:25 is more important than ever:  “As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, the learned may similarly act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path.”  The magnanimous devotees can help society both to understand its faults and deviations and, focus on real solutions, looking beyond mundane bodily misconceptions.

There are many examples in the Mahabharata and other Vedic scriptures of the ksatriyas’ or leaders’ duty to protect all the citizens. In the account of King Sibi, the King even protected a dove who sought his shelter when pursued by a hawk. The responsibility of leadership is very great. In the Mahabharata we also hear that when someone came to Arjuna to complain that their cow was stolen, Arjuna’s two options were either to retrieve or to replace the cow.

There is also the case of the brahmana who complained to the leadership in the great city of Dvaraka when his infant son died prematurely. And when his other newborns also died, he claimed the leadership was impotent to act because they were greedy and self-absorbed. Arjuna promised to correct these wrongs and find the brahmana’s dead sons, and if he didn’t, he vowed to enter fire (to commit suicide).

Using the Mahabharata and this Vedic literature, the Vaisnavas can provide insights,  training, and education for police and military academies, college sociology, and leadership courses, as well as for political, military, business, and cultural leaders. This education will be an invaluable contribution to society and will help alleviate cheating, crime, violence, and exploitation by unscrupulous leaders.

In a February 1977 conversation in Mayapura, Prabhupada explained that the four divisions of society are not meant for exploitation but for cooperation.  “Therefore the varṇāśrama college is required to train people - who are able to become a brāhmaṇa, who is able to become a kṣatriya, etc . . .  In this way, the division must be. And according to the quality & work, there must be a division for cooperation… So the varṇāśrama-dharma should be introduced all over.”

Varnashrama is essential in numerous ways: for all the citizens to live peacefully; to work according to their propensities;  to understand that we are not our material bodies, but we are the eternal soul within; and for establishing the principles of dharma, including the assurance that justice will be available to all.  Above and beyond these, the Varnashrama system will help citizens understand their true constitutional positions and reawaken their relationship with the Lord Within the Heart, our eternal friend, Sri Krishna.  

Sankirtana Das (Andy Fraenkel)  is a 45 year resident of New Vrindaban community. For many years, he developed and performed in dramas based on the scriptures of ancient India. He has also been invited to speak in numerous colleges. He is an award-winning author and storyteller. His most recent book, Hanuman’s Quest, is acclaimed by scholars and storytellers and has received a Storytelling World Resource Honors. For more info about his work see

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