Trump will return to rallying, starting with a Juneteenth event in Tulsa, site of horrific attack on African Americans

David Jackson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will kick off his first political rallies in more than three months in Tulsa, Oklahoma – a city with a brutal history of racial violence, on a date set aside to mark the end of slavery.

The selection of a rally in Tulsa, site of a 1921 massacre by whites that claimed at least 100 black lives, on June 19 – or Juneteenth, the date honoring the Emancipation Proclamation – did not go unnoticed.

"99 years ago a white mob massacred hundreds of Black people in the Greenwood District of Tulsa," tweeted Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass. "The most racist President of my lifetime knows exactly what message he’s sending when he goes there on Juneteenth."

Trump told reporters "they've done a great job with the COVID" in Oklahoma, one of the reasons he picked Tulsa to lead off a string of rallies also planned for Texas, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

The last three of those states are key battlegrounds that could decide whether he remains in the White House. In scheduling the rallies, Trump is entering a new phase of the race in which he has fallen behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden in several states.

"We're going to start our rallies back up now," Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. "We've had a tremendous run at rallies. ... It's been an amazing thing to behold."

Tulsa is the site of one of the most notorious acts of racial violence in American history, the 1921 attack by a white mob on a predominantly black neighborhood that killed hundreds of people, most of them African-American. The attack centered on a prominent area known as "Black Wall Street."

Trump's Tulsa rally is being scheduled on Juneteenth, a holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

"So maybe they just didn't get the significance of June 19 and Tulsa put together," said Michael Tomasky, editor of "Democracy: A Journal of Ideas." "But if they did – it's a sick, vile, aggressively white supremacist gesture."

Katrina Pierson, senior advisor to the Trump Campaign, said in a statement : "As the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the last reading of the Emancipation Proclamation."

Her statement did not mention the Tulsa attack on black citizens in 1921.

Olivia Hooker, one of the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa riot, recalled the terror of the attack in a 2017 interview with the Journal News of New York.

“They were furious when they came in our home and my mother was cooking and not running away," she said. "They took the food and dumped it in the mud and then they came back and took her nice flaky biscuits out of the oven and dumped them out on the dirt... We were hiding under the table where she put us and we could see all this; well, it didn’t astonish my older sister and brother because they knew about things."

Historians are still learning things about the Tulsa attack, which featured prominently in the HBO series "Watchmen." Just last year, researchers discovered what appeared to be a mass grave of victims from the massacre.

Tulsa and the others will be Trump's first rallies since a March 2 event in Charlotte, North Carolina, right before nationwide lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the presidential race has been transformed by Trump's handling of the pandemic and nationwide protests sparked by a police killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died when a white Minneapolis police office knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Trump has long been itching to return to the campaign trail and has credited rallies – and television coverage of them – with fueling his 2016 win over Democrat Hillary Clinton. He and his aides hope revival of them will improve his standing as polls show Biden building a steady lead over the incumbent.

The president said there will be future rallies in Florida, Arizona and North Carolina – all states he carried in 2016 but which are expected to be closely contested this time around.

The campaign is also planning a rally in Texas, he said, a state that is viewed as reliably Republican but where recent polls show a tight race with Biden.

Officials declined to discuss details of the rallies, including how they might assure the safety of Trump's crowds as the coronavirus continues to spread. They would not say whether masks or social distancing would be required, though Trump said "they've done a great job with COVID, as you know, in the state of Oklahoma."

Some analysts questioned whether the rallies will help Trump much – after all, they are held mainly for the benefit of him and his most fervent supporters. Critics also said Trump may be risking the health of his fans.

"I think he’s going to wind up with more of his core base voters getting COVID-19 and dying," said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist. "Which is a bad way to win an election."

President Donald Trump at his most recent political rally, March 2 in Charlotte.

Frank Luntz, a pollster and communications adviser, said the rallies will probably be both good and bad for Trump – good in that he will likely draw huge crowds and prove he retains intense support; bad in that he'll be given the chance to say things that will be used against him with undecided voters he desperately needs to win over.

"He doesn't have the messaging or the discipline to reach the people he needs," Luntz said.

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The campaign is also looking at rallies in a series of battleground states in the months ahead, particularly the ones that Trump narrowly carried in 2016 and provided him the margin of victory over Clinton in the Electoral College.

That group includes Florida as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, officials said. 

It also includes states where Trump was once considered a heavy favorite, such as Ohio, Georgia and Arizona. Polls now show close races in those states. Things also look tight in Republican-run Texas; Trump is headlining a fundraiser in Dallas on Thursday.

North Carolina was to have been the state where Trump accepted re-nomination by the Republican Party. But the president and his aides said the acceptance speech will be moved elsewhere because North Carolina will not permit a capacity crowd because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus. 

Instead, Trump said he will rally in North Carolina "at the appropriate time."

While Trump is seen as struggling in polls right now, aides are quick note that Clinton led in polls late in the 2016 election. Trump loves the rallies as a chance to deliver his message unfiltered, aides said.

The Real Clear Politics website poll averages give Biden an 8 percentage point lead over Trump nationally. Poll averages in states give Biden leads of more than 3 points in the pivotal states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and Arizona, all within the margins of error of most polls.

"The great American comeback is real and the rallies will be tremendous,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “You’ll again see the kind of crowds and enthusiasm that sleepy Joe Biden can only dream of.”

Democrats said they are unconcerned about Trump's rallies because they appeal mainly to people who already support him – and Trump's off-the-cuff rants and attacks on opponents may turn off moderates.

"The things Trump says to fire up the crowds at his rallies turn off swing voters, so this isn’t going to help him with the people who have been leaving him," said Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA Action, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates.

Anthony Scaramucci, once Trump's communications director and now a fierce critic of the president, said the rallies "will help him psychologically," but the election itself will be decided by issues.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump plans rallies in Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, NC