In an interview with The Crimson yesterday, Ogletree—who assembled the Tulsa plaintiffs’ star-studded legal team—predicted that the survivors would prevail at the appellate court level.
The ruling came less than two months before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling striking down the racial segregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
“The lawyers in Brown had to fight a lot of battles and suffer a lot of losses before they could win,” Ogletree said. “We’re prepared to fight equally long... to insure that the injustices that occurred in Tulsa aren’t repeated and are redressed in the courts.”
U.S. District Court Judge James O. Ellison ruled Friday that plaintiffs could not receive reparations from city and state governments because the suit came too long after the deadly riots.
“It is unbelievable and unconscionable that anyone would suggest that the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma are not guilty of dereliction of duty and complicity in the riot itself,” said John Hope Franklin, an eminent historian and a plaintiff in the case.
“If [Ellison] thinks that a technicality is more important than justice, that’s his view of the law but it’s not my view of the law,” said Franklin, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1941 and an honorary degree from the University 40 years later.
According to a State of Oklahoma-sponsored commission’s 2001 report, the riots began on May 31, 1921, after a vigilante mob tried to lynch a black prisoner accused of raping a white woman. The Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa—was destroyed, and as many as 300 blacks died in what Ogletree described as “one of the worst episodes of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history.”
While declaring that the riots constituted a “tragedy,” Ellison ruled that the statute of limitations on survivors’ claims has expired.
Ellison recognized that the atmosphere of racism in Oklahoma after the riots prevented plaintiffs from winning damages in the 1920s, but he said that survivors could have filed suit in the 1960s, after the Jim Crow era ended.
Ogletree characterized Ellison’s rationale as “absurd.”
“The judge on the one hand got it—there was an atmosphere immediately after the riot that would make it preposterous to assume that our clients could have filed [suit in the 1920s],” said Michele A. Roberts, an attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based firm Shea & Gardner who served on the plaintiffs’ legal team along with Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran.
“But [Ellison] forgot that the conspiracy of silence continued. It almost reads as if the judge is claiming that after the 1960s, there was virtual equality,” Roberts said.
‘NO SHOT AT JUSTICE’
Shortly after the riots, more than 100 black residents of Tulsa filed suits seeking reparations, but with the Ku Klux Klan in control of local courts, the riot survivors’ legal efforts failed, said Alfred L. Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama and expert witness in the case.
One of the lawyers who sued for damages in the immediate aftermath of the riots was Franklin’s father. Speaking from his Durham, N.C., home yesterday, Franklin recalled the fear he felt as a six year-old boy living in Rentiesville, Okla., 60 miles south of Tulsa, at the time of the riots.