Riot survivor Otis Clark (left) shakes the hand of attorney Johnnie Cochran with Randall Robinson looking on during a press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center about reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
KELLY KERR / Tulsa World
Tulsa, its Police Department and the state are named in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.
A legal team including Johnnie Cochran and some of the nation's most successful tort and civil rights lawyers sued the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Police Department and the state of Oklahoma on Monday on behalf of more than 200 survivors and descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa. The attorneys said they took the case on a pro bono basis.
"This is one of the most important moments in the history of the black struggle in the United States and the world," said Randall Robinson, an author and civil rights activist. "This is an enormously critical moment in the history . . . of race relations in America."
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who spearheads the legal team, said he doesn't expect any obstacles to winning the lawsuit.
Others, however, pointed out one very big problem -- the statute of limitations for tort claims from the riot expired in 1923.
To get around that, the lawsuit argues that the statute of limitations should be waived because of new evidence uncovered by a legislative race riot commission and published in its 2001 report.
It also argues that the 1997 statute authorizing the riot commission effectively reopened the case and that by passing a 2001 bill implementing some of the riot commission's recommendations, the state tacitly accepted all of the recommendations, which include cash payments to survivors and descendants. This, the suit contends, restarted the clock when the commission released its report two years ago.
"As of Feb. 28, 2001, notice was served that a terrible wrong had been done here," Ogletree said. "It met with palpable silence."
Mark Stodghill, president of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition, said the unwillingness of state and city leaders to discuss reparations led to the legal action.
He said a conflict management session, paid for by the coalition and its supporters, was largely ignored.
"The state is interested in giving money only to a memorial. The city is silent," Stodghill said.
Others in the audience of about 100 at a press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center said the memorial, which has the greatest support among the general public, is the least important of the five remedies recommended by the race riot commission.
"A memorial is nice, but it doesn't apologize for what happened," said Darrel Christopher of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition.
City Attorney Martha Rupp Carter said late Monday that the city had not yet been served and reserved comment. Charlie Price, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, said the state had not been served, either.
Ogletree said the case has been assigned to senior U.S. District Judge James O. Ellison.
Tulsa author Eddie Faye Gates, who over the years has known almost 200 riot survivors, said Monday was a satisfying day for her.
"There were times I almost lost faith," she said, "but it looks as though something will finally happen."
The 16-hour riot on May 31-June 1, 1921, was one of the deadliest and most destructive on record. Property losses were estimated at $3 million to $5 million. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, and an unknown number of people were killed. Thirty-eight deaths have been verified, although most authorities think the toll was considerably higher.
The suit contends that the riot was the result of actions by the state, the city and the Tulsa Police Department during the period leading up to the riot and during the riot itself.
One of the most controversial aspects of the case from the very start was the Police Department's deputization of hundreds of private residents during the night of May 31-June 1, when authorities categorized the melee as a "black invasion" of downtown Tulsa.
Witnesses later said some of these special deputies used their badges to plunder and burn the black district.
In some cases, regular officers were identified as having participated in the mayhem.
Residents by the hundreds filed claims against the city following the riot, and almost all of their claims were rejected. Property owners then turned to the state courts, which also ruled against them.
Several of the attorneys at Monday's press conference spoke of the suit not only in terms of redressing the riot but as a symbol of racial injustice.
Dennis Sweet, an attorney from Jackson, Miss., said, "This is important for the folks up here. It's important for the future."
Where the case fits in the international reparations movement is unclear. Stodghill said it could have some implications but that the focus should be on the riot survivors.
Nevertheless, such groups as N'COBRA -- the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America -- distributed materials at the press conference, and most of the attorneys from outside Oklahoma are slavery reparations advocates.
Local attorneys involved in the suit are James Goodwin, Leslie Mansfield, Jim Lloyd and Sharon Cole Jones.
Other attorneys of record are the following:
Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law School.
Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, N'COBRA chief legal consultant, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Michele A. Roberts, Shea and Gardner, Washington, D.C.
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Cochran, Cherry, Givens & Smith, New York.
Dennis C. Sweet III, Langston Sweet & Freese, Jackson, Miss.
Eric J. Miller, Harvard Criminal Justice Institute, Cambridge, Mass.
Michael D. Hausfeld, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, Washington, D.C.
Suzette M. Malveaux, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, Washington, D.C.
Rose Sanders, aka Faya Ora Rose Toure, Selma, Ala.
Willie E. Gary, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, Stuart, Fla.
Lorenzo Williams, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, Stuart, Fla.
J.L. Chestnut, Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway, Campbell & Albright, Selma, Ala.
Joseph M. Sellers, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, Washington, D.C.
Tricia Purks Hoffler, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, Stuart, Fla.
Randy Krehbiel, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8365 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.