High court is asked to take reparations case
Survivors pursue 1921 race riot suit
By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff | March 10, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Survivors of a devastating 1921 race riot in Oklahoma asked the Supreme Court yesterday to permit them to seek reparations from the state and the City of Tulsa despite lower court rulings that too many years have passed. Lawyers pursuing the case see it as a bellwether for the legal movement for slavery reparations.
Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a leader among a group of lawyers who have been trying to lay the groundwork for slavery reparations, represents the race riot's survivors and their descendants. Ogletree said that the Tulsa case also presents the federal courts with a chance to right a historic wrong suffered by African-Americans.
''The 1921 Tulsa race riot was one of the greatest travesties in our country's history, but very few people know about it," Ogletree said. ''This is a case that allows America to see that there are actual living survivors from one of the worst examples of domestic terrorism in our country who never had their day in court and deserve to be heard."
Lower courts dismissed the case on the grounds that a two-year statute of limitations ran out many years ago.
''We think 80 years after the fact is too late to try to go back and apply today's standards to the 1920s," said Wellon Poe, an assistant attorney general who defended the State of Oklahoma in the case.
But Ogletree argued that the statute of limitations should not have started ticking until 2001, when a state commission completed the first full accounting of state and local government complicity in the 1921 rampage by whites.
The Tulsa race riot began May 31, 1921, when police arrested a black youth for allegedly assaulting a white woman, a charge later dismissed. A crowd of whites gathered outside the courthouse where the youth was jailed, and there was a rumor that he would be lynched.
According to the state's 2001 report, men from Tulsa's black neighborhood, the Greenwood District, armed themselves and went to the courthouse to defend the youth. A gunfight erupted, and the outnumbered blacks retreated to Greenwood.
A white mob followed them and began to destroy the 40-block neighborhood. All night and into the morning, they shot indiscriminately at blacks and burned homes and nearly every building in the thriving commercial strip once called the ''Black Wall Street," leaving nearly 9,000 people homeless.
The civil rights claim against the city is based on the report's finding that instead of stopping the violence, local police took part in it. The police chief deputized numerous white men, armed them with guns seized from a local pawn shop, and sent them into the neighborhood to join the rioters in attacking blacks.
The claim against the state is based on the report's finding that the Oklahoma National Guard also joined the fray on behalf of the whites, carrying out mass arrests of nearly every black resident of Greenwood and marching them to detention centers. Looters followed in their wake, stealing from empty houses and then burning them.
The official death count was 38, but the report says that the real figure was probably between 100 and 300. A total of 1,256 homes were destroyed, along with ''virtually every other structure, including churches, business, schools, even a hospital and a library."
A local grand jury concluded that the black residents were to blame for the violence. No perpetrators were ever investigated or prosecuted. A few victims tried filing lawsuits but recovered nothing.
After the commission delivered its report in 2001, Ogletree and a team of lawyers in 2003 sued the state and the city on behalf of about 150 survivors and descendants.
Lawyers for the city and state moved to dismiss the suit, saying the time for filing lawsuits ended in 1923, two years after the riots. In March 2004, US District Court Judge James O. Ellison held in Tulsa that the statute-of-limitations clock could be delayed until blacks could get a fair hearing in court, but said the lawsuit should have been brought in the 1960s.
An appeals court affirmed Ellison's ruling in September 2004, holding that the case could have been brought by the 1980s, when a book about the riots was published.
Ogletree argued that not all the victims knew about the book, and the government had not acknowledged a share of the responsibility until the state report.
Ogletree is trying to persuade the Supreme Court to require a more favorable standard for how courts determine the statute of limitations in cases involving historic wrongdoing. That outcome would deliver justice in the Tulsa case, he said, and would establish a precedent useful for future suits seeking reparations for slavery.
So far, two major legal obstacles have stood in the way of such suits going to trial. The justice system does not award compensation for long-ago wrongs, and the law tends not to allow claims on behalf of victims who are long dead. The Tulsa race riot case could chip away at those obstacles.
''I'm looking at this the same way the [Brown v. Board of Education] lawyers looked at ending racial segregation," Ogletree said. ''It took them 20 years to build a case that no one thought they could ever win."
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