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Tulsa race riot case to the Court

On Wednesday, the years-long attempt to gain reparations for victims or their descendants for the notorious race riot in Tulsa, Okla., nearly 84 years ago, will reach the Supreme Court. A petition for review will be filed, seeking to suspend the running of a lawsuit-filing deadline so that the reparations claim could go forward in federal court in Tulsa.

A federal judge ruled last March that the lawsuit was many years too late; the Tenth Circuit upheld that result last September, and then denied rehearing en banc over four judges’ dissents last December. (The vote against en banc review was 9-4.) The case is Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al. In the Tenth Circuit, it was docket 04-5042.

The Tulsa reparations case is the most highly visible among a number of lawsuits around the country, seeking redress for racial harms done in the nation’s past. So far, none of those cases has succeeded.

Other lawsuits have been against businesses. The Tulsa case is an attempt to open a broad legal assault that would hold governments financially responsible for the harms done – in this case, the city of Tulsa and city officials, including the chief of police. The lawsuit also would seek remedies against the Oklahoma governor in his official capacity.

The Tulsa case has been pursued since it was filed in February 2003 by a pro bono legal team headed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. The lawsuit, while based on the specific incidents in Tulsa in 1921, seeks to raise broader issues that have the potential to aid other reparations claims.

The riots in Tulsa occurred right after Memorial Day in 1921. Most homes and businesses within the economically thriving black community in Tulsa’s Greenwood district were burned down. Scores of blacks either were shot dead or herded into a fairground by marauding truckloads of whites. About 300 people, most of them blacks, died. The main claim in the 2003 lawsuit is that the mobs were deputized, armed, and spurred on by city and state officials, true to the city’s long history of racial hatred.

The lawsuit does not seek financial payments to the survivors or their descendants, but rather asks for educational and health-care resources for descendants who remain in the community.

U.S. District Judge James O. Ellison of Tulsa, while voicing sympathy for the victims of “the terrible devastation,” found that the lawsuit had failed to meet Oklahoma’s two-year statute of limitations for filing civil rights lawsuits. He rejected the argument that the two-year period did not start to run until a special state commission that studied the riots issued its report in February 2001.

Students in the Harvard Supreme Court litigation clinic participated in the preparation of the petition. Events are scheduled in Washington Monday and Tuesday to mark the filing of the case in the Supreme Court. A group of 20 Harvard students, seeking to travel to Washington for those events, has made a public appeal for funds to pay for their trip.

(Disclosure: Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe, fellow bloggers, lead the Harvard clinic, and another of my blog colleagues, Marty Lederman, has had an advisory role in the Tulsa litigation. The above post, however, came from other sources.)