Category: Repair and reparations Tags: H.R. 40, Rep. John Conyers, Reparations for slavery, Tulsa Race Riot, U.S. Congress
Last week, we reported that Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) had re-introduced before Congress his bill, H.R. 40, to establish a commission to study reparations for slavery and racial discrimination.
Today we write to say that Rep. Conyers has also re-introduced legislation to provide reparations for the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot and their descendants.
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is generally considered to be the worst single incident of racial violence in the history of the United States.1 The riot devastated the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a prosperous, racially-segregated community that had been called the “Negro Wall Street” of the United States.
Sparked by rumors that a young black man would be targeted by a lynch mob, an armed confrontation between black and white crowds led to thousands of white citizens rampaging through Greenwood, killing, burning, and looting. The National Guard had to be dispatched to restore order, jailing 4,000 to 5,000 black men and women for days while leaving white rioters alone. In the end, thirty-five blocks were entirely destroyed and anywhere from 45 to 300 people lost their lives. No one was convicted for acts of murder, arson, or larceny during the riot, and more than 100 lawsuits filed afterwards by black residents of Greenwood were rejected.
In 2001, the bipartisan Tulsa Race Riot Commission examined the historical record and recommended reparations payments for survivors of the riots and their descendants. The Oklahoma state legislature responded by establishing scholarships, a memorial, and economic development for Greenwood, but declined to offer reparations. In 2003, a group of survivors filed a lawsuit, Alexander v. State of Oklahoma with the aid of Charles Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran, seeking relief in the form of education and healthcare for Greenwood residents. The courts, however, rejected this lawsuit, on the basis that the statute of limitations now bars any relief.
Rep. Conyers’ bill, H.R. 98, would overturn the result in Alexander v. State of Oklahoma, providing a remedy in court for anyone deprived of their rights on account of race in the riot or its aftermath.
In remarks in the Congressional Record introducing the legislation, Rep. Conyers noted:
The case of the Tulsa-Greenwood Riot victims is worthy of congressional attention because substantial evidence suggests that governmental officials deputized and armed the mob and that the National Guard joined in the destruction. The report commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1997, and published in 2001, uncovered new information and detailed, for the first time, the extent of the involvement by the State and city government in prosecuting and erasing evidence of the riot. This new evidence was crucial for the formulation of a substantial case, but its timeliness raised issues at law, and resulted in a dismissal on statute of limitation grounds. In dismissing the survivor’s claims, however, the Court found that extraordinary circumstances might support extending the statute of limitations, but that Congress did not establish rules applicable to the case at bar. With this legislation, we have the opportunity to provide closure for a group of claimants–many over 100 years old–and to close the book on a tragic chapter in history.
Racism, and its violent manifestations, are part of our Nation’s past that we cannot avoid. With the prosecution of historic civil rights claims, both civil and criminal, we encourage a process of truth and reconciliation that can heal historic wounds. In this case, the Court took “no great comfort” in finding that there was no legal avenue through which the plaintiffs could bring their claims. The “Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act” would simply give Tulsans and all Oklahomans, white and black, victims and non-victims, their day in court. Without that opportunity, we will all continue to be victims of our past.
H.R. 98 is to be named the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act, in honor of the eminent historian who painstakingly documented the Tulsa Race Riots. The bill, bearing the short description, “To provide a remedy for survivors and descendants of the victims of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riot of 1921,” has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The same legislation in the last Congress attracted one co-sponsor, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and died in committee without action.
- See, for instance, the Oklahoma Historical Society’s online Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/T/TU013.html. [↩]