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In the first legal action by a group advocating reparations for slavery, a committee led by Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree filed suit yesterday to recover damages for the victims of a 1921 race riot and their descendents.
If successful, the suit would give legal support to the drive to win reparations for the descendents of black slaves.
The Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group of about two dozen lawyers, academics and public officials filed the brief in federal court in Tulsa, Okla.
The action was filed “on behalf of the survivors and descendents” of the June, 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, according to Ogletree, who was in Tulsa yesterday.
“It will deliver restitution for the injuries incurred by these survivors,” Ogletree said.
About 250 blacks and 50 whites died in 1921 when whites in Tulsa rioted and destroyed 1,200 homes. Victims were burned, shot and lynched.
The riots started after a black man was arrested on charges of raping a white woman.
The Reparations Coordinating Committee filed the complaint after a local group, the Tulsa Reparations Committee, contacted them for help. This group had failed to obtain reparations from the Oklahoma state and Tulsa city governments over the past two years.
More than 100 survivors, many now in their eighties, are named as plaintiffs in the complaint.
The Reparations Coordinating Committee, which includes attorney Johnnie Cochran, did not specify what damages it was seeking, according to Ogletree.
Last year, the committee said it was considering suing Harvard, among other universities, for benefits it derived from slavery.
The committee is co-chaired by Ogletree, Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, an attorney for the National Coalition for Black Reparations in America and Randall Robinson, who graduated from HLS in 1970 and is president emeritus for the TransAfrica lobby organization.
Ogletree will lead a forum on thetonight.
Cochran and former Harvard professor Cornel R. West ’76 will be speaking along with Ogletree.
Forty-nine Harvard Law School (HLS) students and one undergraduate will travel to New York City at 1 p.m. today to participate in the rally.
Students clamored to get a seat on a chartered bus to Harlem for today’s discussion. The bus filled yesterday, leaving students to find other ways to get to New York City.
“Professor Ogletree is a champion, and everyone at the law school is interested in what he thinks about the issue of reparations” said HLS first-year Louis E. Sterling, who will be traveling to Harlem today.
Bryan Carter, a first-year at HLS, said that he is looking forward to hearing Cochrane and Ogletree speak on reparations.
“As legal experts, they add a lot of credibility to the issue of reparations,” he said.
“Race is still something that is yet to be openly discussed. I am eager to see this issue put onto the table,” Carter said.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the latest suit.
“I think these are just ill-will suits,” reparations opponent David Horowitz said.
“I just have no sympathy for these briefs,” he added. “This Reparations Coordinating Committee is just an organization to pour salt in the American wound of the past.”
But Horowitz added that having Harvard’s name on the brief might make it more successful.
“Because Ogletree is black and because it is Harvard and because he has the support of civil rights organizations, peoples’ normal reactions to this brief will be self-suppressed, and people will be afraid to come out against it.”
—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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