Survivors of Tulsa Race Riots Seek Help From Congress for a Wrong Never Righted
Legendary black historian John Hope Franklin captivated a congressional hearing this week when he eloquently urged members to pass legislation that would clear the way for survivors of the nation's worst race riots to sue for reparations.
The federal courts have ruled that the statute of limitations has expired for the victims and heirs to sue the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma over losses during 1921 race riots that left more than 200 blacks dead and 400 businesses and countless homes in a prosperous black neighborhood torched. At the time, the legal system did not allow the black community any legal remedies.
"There was a code of silence that settled" over Tulsa, said Franklin, in explaining why legal action was not brought sooner. Those who survived, he said, "suffered most of their lives through the trauma."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said the issue merits congressional attention because of evidence suggesting that governmental officials deputized and armed the mob. Harvard legal scholar Charles J. Ogletree, who has been representing the victims, noted that "no one has ever been held responsible criminally or civilly for destroying a 42-block area."
Ogletree introduced 104-year-old Otis Clark, a survivor of the riots, and asked the committee to provide justice to the remaining survivors before they die. University of Alabama law professor Alfred L. Brophy called the riots a way of keeping the blacks "in their place." Olivia J. Hooker, six years old during the riots, said her mother told her "your country is shooting at you."
"This was devastating to me," she said at the hearing.
Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary subcommittee for civil rights seemed sympathetic to the arguments. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) arrived at the hearing with her cab driver, who told her he was interested in the legislation. He got an ovation.
Some members asked whether it would be enough to simply pledge that this would never happen again.
Franklin, 92, who was born in Oklahoma and whose father was in Tulsa at the time of the riots, argued that had the riots not occurred, many descendants might be further "along the road of prosperity."
The prolific and revered educator told of a colossal slight at a private club where he had been celebrating his 1995 White House Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
"A white woman came up to me and said, 'Here, you get my coat,' " he recalled. "What was I doing there except to serve her?
" 'No more' is not good enough."