Purging History: Was Orlando Really the Worst Massacre in US History?

shutterstock_239401927 2

In the rush for headlines in the immediate wake of the tragic killing of 49 people and injury to 53 others by a lone gunman on Sunday morning, June 12, 2016 in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, very few in the media called it what it is: “the worst American massacre since 9/11” or perhaps the “worst U.S. massacre in the last thirty years.”

Most media texts and commentary did not parse their claims with definitions or limitations, but instead called this the “Worst Massacre in U.S. history” or a drumbeat of similar phrases that were quickly picked up throughout the mass media.   Truth be told, although the Orlando massacre was an atrocity worthy of deep lament, it joins a long, sad list of mass killings throughout our nation’s history from the start of the colonial era onward.

There is no officially agreed upon definition of mass shootings, but they are generally defined as indiscriminate killing of four or more people (not including the perpetrator) by gun violence. They may be committed by an individual or organization in a public or non-public place. Massacre, as defined by Robert Melson, former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, is “the intentional killing by political actors of a significant number of relatively defenseless people… the motives for massacre need not be rational in order for the killings to be intentional… Mass killings can be carried out for various reasons, including a response to false rumors… political massacre… should be distinguished from criminal or pathological mass killings… as political bodies we of course include the state and its agencies, but also nonstate actors…”(as retrieved in Wikipedia, 6/15/16)

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern professor of criminology, was quoted in a June 15th Reuters article by Carlo Allegri to say that “When we talk about mass killing, we talk about it as criminal homicide….And, generally, killing related to military operations, wartime, etc., is not criminal homicide. It’s homicide, but not criminal homicide.” He further stated that “mass murder…has criminal intent not related to the military.”

President Obama said, “We know enough to say this was an act of terror and act of hate.” The 29 year old shooter, Omar Mateen, was a U.S. citizen whose parents immigrated from Afghanistan in the 1980s. He appears to have acted alone. In an interview, one victim held hostage by Mateen in a bathroom during the rampage, described how she heard Mateen, during a 911 telephone call, explain his assault was in reaction to U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Police officials reported Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS during this call. The large number of fatalities and injuries in Orlando is directly linked to Mateen’s main weapon of choice, the Sig Sauer MCX, which was originally designed for U.S. Special Operations forces and is a descendant of the M16 rifle, the standard issue U.S. weapon of war whose high velocity bullets are designed to kill the greatest number of people in the fastest amount of time. If we are in a “war on terror,” as another media drumbeat has drilled into us since 9/11, does it not become more questionable as to whether this can be defined as a criminal act or an act of war?

Without question, an accurate investigation of mass killings of this magnitude quickly reveals this was by far not the worst massacre ever to occur on U.S. soil. I first published a list of massacres in May 2007 in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was reprinted in CounterPunch, in reference to the same claim being made about another mass shooting, when 33 students were fatally shot and at least 15 injured on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. Then too, mass media coverage was punctuated by claims such as in The New York Times, which called it the “Worst U.S. Gun Rampage” and CNN, which called it the “Deadliest Killing Spree in U.S. history.” This was followed by San Francisco Fox affiliate KTVU Channel 2’s claim that it was “the worst massacre ever in the United States.”  Monday, June 13, 2016, MSNBC continued to lead their Orlando reports with their variations on the phrase “The worst massacre in U.S. history.” The New York Times’ 2-line banner headline concluded with “…50 DEAD IN WORST SHOOTING ON U.S. SOIL.” The title on a front page centered graphic announced in bold: “Deadliest Mass Shootings in American History,” where the earliest example detailed 21 killed in San Ysidro, California, in 1984; followed by 23 killed in Kileen Texas, in 1991; 32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007; and 27 killed in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. NPR posted a list of mass shootings beginning in 1966, which perhaps is what is meant by some claims this was the worst in “modern” U.S. history.

Here are just some of the massacres or mass shootings that also took place on mainland U.S. soil in the 19th and 20th centuries, which involved guns and where more people than thirty-three were known to be killed. This list includes massacres conducted by military or para-military groups, but all were clearly actions outside of the U.S. military’s acceptable rules of engagement:

–In 1832, Bad Axe, the junction of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers, was the site of the mass murder of at least 300 Sauk (also known as Sac) men, women and children, and 20 whites. This incident was one of the last battles occurring during the treaty disputes known as the “Black Hawk War, “ when federal troops under General Samuel Whiteside and the Illinois state militia, including Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, Captain Abraham Lincoln, and Colonel Zachary Taylor, were determined to remove the Sauks and other Plains Indians from their ancestral lands. This massacre occurred on land ceded to the U.S. in 1787 that became part of the Northwest Territory, until Illinois had entered the Union in 1818 and Wisconsin in 1848.

–In 1860, Bret Harte, a well-known California writer, had just begun his career, working as a local newspaper reporter in Arcata, California (a town then known as Union). Harte was expelled from Humboldt County because he recorded the Gunther Island Massacre of Wiyot Indians, committed on February 26, 1860, when a small group of white men murdered between 60 to 200 Wiyot men, women and children. The massacre was encouraged by a local newspaper. Extermination was once the official policy of the California government toward Native Americans, as Governor Peter H. Burnett stated in 1851: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected…”

–On April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, Tennessee, Confederate troops under General Nathan Forrest massacred 227 black and white Union troops with such ferocity that an eyewitness Confederate soldier said, “blood, human blood, stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity…General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

–July 30, 1866, the white Mayor of New Orleans organized and led a mob of ex-Confederates, white supremacists and members of the city’s police force, who opened gunfire on a meeting of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention, in session because the Louisiana State Legislature had recently passed black codes, which contrary to the federal Reconstruction laws, restricted rights of blacks including not allowing black men the right to vote. The killing rampage spilled out into the streets, and by its conclusion 238 people were killed and 45 wounded, including 200 black Union war veterans, 40 of whom were delegates to the convention. This event was immortalized in Thomas Nast’s cartoon, “The Massacre of the Innocents.”

–On April 13, 1873, 350 miles northwest of New Orleans in Colfax, Grand Parish, Louisiana, 280 blacks were victims of a group of armed white men that included members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.  Known as the Colfax Massacre, it was said to be sparked by contested local elections, although more generally its cause was, as in New Orleans in 1866, white opposition to Reconstruction, which in 1875 resulted in United States v. Cruikshank, an important basis of future gun control legislation, because it allows that “the federal government had no power to protect citizens against private action (not committed by federal or state government authorities) that deprived them of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment.” (quote from “The Racist Origins of US Gun Control” by Steve Ekwall)

–In the 1880s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant throughout the western United States after the 1882 enactment of the first Chinese Exclusion Act, two massacres of more than 30 Chinese immigrants occurred. In 1885 at Rock Springs, Wyoming, in riots against Chinese coal miners employed by the Union Pacific Railroad, more than 40 Chinese Americans were shot, burned or otherwise killed or injured by a mob of white miners, who also burned down their village. The Chinese men had been brought in ten years earlier as strike breakers at the mine. In 1887, at Hells Canyon on the Snake River in Wallowa County, Oregon, a gang of at least 7 white horse thieves robbed, shot or otherwise murdered and mutilated at least 34 Chinese immigrants who had set up camp to mine gold there. Most of the bodies were found months later by another group of Chinese immigrants who had arrived to mine gold in the area. Although 3 people were brought to trial, no one was convicted. In 2005, the area was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove to honor those dead.

–In 1913, during another nationally publicized action known as the Ludlow Massacre, over 66 people were killed, including eleven children and two women who were burned alive.  Sparked by a strike against the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation by the mostly foreign born Serb, Greek and Italian coal miners after one of their union organizers was murdered, it eventually involved the Colorado National Guard, imported strikebreakers, and sympathetic walk-outs by union miners throughout the state. The union never was recognized by the company, and a U.S. Congressional committee investigation failed to result in indictments of any militiaman or mine guard.

–In May and July, 1917, between 40 and 200 people were killed and 6000 blacks homes and businesses were burned to the ground in the East Saint Louis Riots (aka East Saint Louis Massacre). Considered the nation’s worst example of labor violence or race riots, these events occurred during the period known as the Great Migration, when southern blacks arrived in East St. Louis by the thousands, and were especially provoked when hundreds of black workers were brought in to replace white workers striking against the Aluminum Ore Works. The employers refused to negotiate with the white workers because so many blacks were available to take their jobs at lower wages. The National Guard was called in after whites rode through town shooting indiscriminately at blacks in their homes, where many were burned alive or shot at as they tried to escape burning buildings.   Estimates claim almost half the black population left East St. Louis, to return to the south, or reside in St. Louis or other nearby towns such as Ferguson, Missouri.

–In 1921, a year when 64 lynchings were reported, the African American Greenwood business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the site of shooting deaths of at least 40 people, most of whom are black, although the actual–but undocumented–death toll is said to be closer to 300.  This site was then known as the “Negro’s Wall Street,” and was home to 15,000 people and 191 businesses. The rampage took the form of a riot, and was caused by economic tensions, particularly sparked by an article in the Tulsa Tribune regarding an alleged rape incident between a black shoe shiner and a white elevator operator. Because of this riot, Tulsa became the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air, when police dropped dynamite from private planes to break it up. Whites took possession of most of the land, and the site has become part of Oklahoma State University’s Tulsa campus.

The media does a disservice to all Americans when it in effect purges our history of the long litany of mass murders we would do well to remember and try to understand. I guess I mistakenly assumed that all American students had at least learned the haunting story of Wounded Knee, when in 1890, between 150 to 300 Lakota Sioux practitioners of the Ghost Dance were shot dead by a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. Can it be that ignorance of American history is not only a problem effecting American high school students, but also handicaps even those who graduate from elite graduate journalism programs? A search of the web sites of two of the nation’s most respected graduate programs in journalism, at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, indicates no history courses are required for graduation from their programs, but they do mention evidence of students’ research skills will be expected as part of their application narratives, and that their basic investigative reporting courses teach the investigative process, including the importance and evaluation of documentary evidence. Since the archives of some of our most influential newsrooms extend back to the 1800s, there is no excuse for such historical amnesia on the part of those who have taken upon themselves the serious task of informing the public. Because one sure effect, since the vast majority of these historical shootings were directed against Native Americans and blacks, is that the take-away could be that even in death, black and Indian lives don’t matter.

Carla Blank directed Ishmael Reed’s most recent play, “The Conductor,” which closed at Off-Off Broadway’s Theater for the New City on September 10, 2023.  Her article, “The Resurrection of Sister Aimee,” published in ALTA magazine, was a finalist for a Los Angeles Press Club 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Award.