Though the racial riots which occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Greenwood District right after Memorial Day in 1921 have been studied, exasperated and prayed over, and even included in 21st century movies and television depictions (“The Watchmen” “Lovecraft Country”)  the one thing those riots have never gotten is justice. This has not been for lack of trying. 

The summary of the Greenwood Commission study stated that most homes and businesses owned by Black Americans in the Greenwood district, which had been economically thriving and robust for a long period of time until that May date, were either burned down or destroyed by aerial bombing. Scores of Black folk were shot dead individually or herded into a fairground by marauding truckloads of Whites and then shot and brutalized. 

All told, over 300 Black Americans were killed. A series of lawsuits were eventually filed against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma, the most serious and sustained being, Alexander v. Tulsa, Oklahoma (2003), filed by the late, great attorney Johnnie Cochran, Harvard legal scholar Charles Ogletree, and the Reparations Coordinating Committee of attorneys. 

With a record of wins and losses in the various levels of the federal court system, in 2005 the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The primary claim at each level was that the White citizen mobs were deputized, armed, and spurred on by city and state officials, so the city and state were culpable for all the damage done. The Alexander case was refused certiorari by the Supreme Court and thus was not ever argued at that level. The Tulsa riot victims have never yet been granted justice or restitution.

It was thus heartening to hear that the cause was not dropped nor forgotten, and this month, over 100 years after the massacre, a recent court ruling was favorable for the last living victims of that night of mass murder. 

Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield, are the last three known Black survivors of that 1921 Greenwood massacre. They, and a community grouping of allies, filed a Public Nuisance suit in 2021 against the city of Tulsa, alleging that, “the defendants’ exploitation of death, destruction and disparities they created … have resulted in their (White Tulsa’s) unjust enrichment at the expense of these communities.”

Tulsa officials argued that the city should not be forced to pay anything because today’s city residents had nothing to do with what happened more than a century ago.

The presiding judge agreed with the Black plaintiffs. This does not mean the case is over. There are many more miles ahead before true justice will be done, and though Miss Fletcher, Miss Benningfield and Mister Van Ellis may not see the end of this righteous fight, they have lived to see at least one major and substantial legal victory in the trail forward.

As Americans — hard working, God loving Americans — we’ve all been taught that justice is supposed to prevail. When people do bad things, there is supposed to be a reckoning. Well, the Tulsa victims of a racial massacre (the largest known in the U.S.) may yet get the satisfaction of that result. But they have to be willing to never give up in order to get it. That seems to be the story of our lives here.

And it still is news.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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