Donald Trump has postponed his planned election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the scene of one of the worst race massacres in US history – amid outcry over its clash with the Juneteenth holiday marking the end of US slavery.
The gathering – which had also caused alarm among health officials tackling the coronavirus pandemic – was to be held on 19 June, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when a general read out Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in Texas, freeing slaves in the last un-emancipated state.
On Friday night, the US president reversed his decision to hold a rally then as a “celebration” of that day, pushing it back one day to “honour requests” from the African American community.
He tweeted: “Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents.
“I have therefore decided to move our rally to Saturday, June 20th, in order to honor their requests.”
The change came as Trump further stoked controversy over race issues and policing by saying that chokeholds sounded “so innocent and so perfect”, and once again claimed he has been the best president for black Americans – only partially conceding that Abraham Lincoln may have surpassed him.
Trump said he would like to see a ban on chokeholds in most instances, but suggested their use would be understandable in some situations, such as the current protests. “I don’t like chokeholds … [but] sometimes, if you’re alone and you’re fighting someone, it’s tough,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Friday.
“You saw some very good people protesting, but you saw some bad people also,” Trump said. “And you get somebody in a chokehold. What are you going to do now? Let go and say, ‘Oh, let’s start all over again’?”
As Black Lives Matter protests reverberate around the US and the world, the choice of date had been criticised as incendiary given the historic symbolism of the Tulsa race massacre in which up to 300 black Americans were killed by white mobs.
“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists – he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” tweeted Democrat senator Kamala Harris at the time.
Sherry Gamble Smith, the president of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, an organisation named after the prosperous black community that white Oklahomans burned down in the 1921 attack, said: “To choose the date, to come to Tulsa, is totally disrespectful and a slap in the face to even happen.”
The massacre took place over two days from 31 May to 1 June in the highly segregated city, with mobs attacking the Greenwood neighbourhood of the city, known as Black Wall Street for its prosperity.
Following a familiar pattern to the racist lynchings of the era, the attacks started with accusations that a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, had assaulted Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl.
The Trump campaign was aware that the date for the president’s return to rallies was Juneteenth, according to two campaign officials, who were not authorised to speak publicly about internal discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The rally has also caused health concerns, with those attending asked to sign a waiver to say the Trump campaign is not liable if they contracted coronavirus at the event.