Orlando Mass Shooting Not Deadliest in American History

A front page of the St. Louis Missouri Republican newspaper from July 1917.

By ARIELA GROSS – – – – –
Ariela Gross is the John B. & Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law & History at USC Gould School of Law and author of “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America.” She is on Twitter as @arielagross.

The massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was a horrific tragedy. But it was not unprecedented – and it was not the “deadliest mass shooting in American history,” as many have called it.

To call it that is to forget the last hundred years of U.S. history of mass violence fueled by racial hatred and homophobia. Although precise numbers of deaths are impossible to specify, at least 100 African Americans were killed in East St. Louis, Ill., in one bloody night in July 1917; anywhere from 55 to 300 blacks were massacred in Tulsa, Okla., in 16 hours in June 1921; and dozens more were killed in Rosewood, Fla., in January 1923. And of course, more recently, 32 died in the 1973 bombing of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans.

It’s important to put the Pulse shooting in historical context not to minimize the terror wreaked by a disturbed and bigoted individual’s easy access to military-grade weapons, but to recognize that gun culture in the U.S. has gone hand in hand with violent hatred for a long time.

Firemen give first aid to survivors of the arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

Firemen give first aid to survivors of the arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

Omar Mateen may have been a member of a minority religion, and he may have expressed admiration for a foreign terrorist organization, but his despicable act is part of a homegrown tradition of hatred-inspired shooting and burning. These mass killings struck terror into black communities, as they were meant to do, and reinforced white supremacy in the North as well as the South. They were also sanctioned and sometimes supported by civil authorities. Similarly, gay nightclubs have been the targets for arson, shootings, and other mass violence as well as police harassment and beatings.

What were called one hundred years ago “race riots” were in fact pogroms, in which mobs armed with guns, explosives and fire – sometimes dropped from private planes – killed African American men, women and children, destroyed homes, and racially cleansed entire towns and cities, driving survivors into exile.

The biggest difference between the hate crimes of the past and Sunday’s mass shooting is that they were group actions rather than the work of a single individual. That is an important difference, to be sure, but it shouldn’t obscure how much yesterday’s events did have in common with past massacres of hated groups. To label Omar Mateen simply as an “Islamic terrorist” is to forget that he was also an American.

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