BY HUGO TORRES
In 1921, the city of Greenwood, Oklahoma erupted in violence. The cause of the riots was a white lynch mob that attacked a group of blacks gathered to defend a man whom the mob accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Now, 82 years later, the mainly black victims of the riot are getting their day in court.
The Reparations Coordinating Committee, a group comprised of distinguished lawyers including Johnnie Cochran and Prof. Charles Ogletree, filed suit on Monday in a Tulsa federal court. The Committee filed the lawsuit at the request of the Tulsa Reparations Council, which has been working on obtaining reparations for the victims of the race riot as well as their descendants.
The plaintiffs face an uphill challenge, as courts have been reluctant to award damages for actions that occurred far in the past. However, the Tulsa Reparations Council has been successful in getting the Oklahoma Legislature to establish a scholarship fund for descendants of riot victims. In addition, the victims have received support from the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries’ Committee Against Racism, which has given out over $20,000 of private money to help compensate victims of the riot. A memorial to those who died in the riots is also planned.
Although it is unclear how much victims would receive in compensation, the suit alleges that $2 million in property damage took place on the day of the riot, with over a thousand homes destroyed. The suit alleges a failure by state and local authorities to adequately protect the mainly black community of Greenwood.
In September, 2002, Ogletree urged the Tulsa Reparations Council to file a suit seeking compensation. “In talking about reparations, I’m talking about repairing. I’m talking about reconciliation. This is not just financial,” he said in a speech given that same month at the University of Tulsa.
Ogletree and other members of the Reparations Coordinating Committee have made it clear that they are not seeking any money for themselves. The Committee has been working on reparations for injustices done to blacks, notably from slavery.
Students seemed to support the filing of the suit, albeit with some skepticism as to its chances of success.
“I admire the effort to help compensate groups that have a history of oppression in the United States,” said 1L Tammy Pettinato. “However, because of practical considerations I don’t think they have much of a chance of winning this lawsuit.”
Ogletree could not be reached for comment for this story.