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Tulsa's victims denied justice again

August 5, 2005 | Page 12

IN AN act consistent with the U.S. government's continued refusal to acknowledge the brutal and lasting legacy of racism in this country, the U.S. Supreme Court recently dismissed without comment a class-action lawsuit brought by the survivors of the Tulsa "race riot" of 1921.

The "riot" was a mass lynching that began on May 31. Survivor Olivia Hooker, now 90, recently described to members of the Congressional Black Caucus CBC what she saw as a 6-year-old, peeking from a small window in her home: "Up on the hill was a machine gun with an American flag on it."

Over 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed over the next few days, and as many as 1,000 people were killed, based on estimates made from photographs of trucks filled with bodies driving out of town to dump the dead in unmarked mass graves.

The riot began when a group of 80 Black men, including armed veterans of the First World War, attempted to stop a crowd of some 10,000 whites from lynching Dick Rowland, a Black man who had "assaulted" a white woman downtown. Tulsa's police chief deputized any white man with a gun and told them to go "get a nigger." The Oklahoma National Guard disarmed the town's Blacks and put them in a "holding area," while their homes, schools and businesses were bombed and burnt to the ground.

Otis Clark, a 105-year-old riot survivor, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: "When we got back to Tulsa, our homes were burned down. Nobody saw the older folks. We never saw them again. They say they put them in a grave. We didn't have a funeral for nobody. They never did nothing for people there. Never gave us nothing."

The lawsuit, which sought reparations for surviving victims from a hostile city government, the police department and the state of Oklahoma, had been turned down by a lower court on the basis that the statute of limitations expired in 1923--two years after the riot, when Oklahoma's courts were segregated, and judges were commonly Klansmen.

In order to avoid any discussion of possible reparations for slavery and legal segregation, all branches of the U.S. government have worked to sweep Tulsa and all the horrors of racist violence under the rug. They have never so much as apologized for the genocidal enslavement and oppression of Africans or African Americans.

The Senate's recent apology for "failing"--through the racist Democrats' use of the filibuster--to make lynchings illegal in the face of atrocities like Tulsa is the first such recognition ever. The meager apology, however long overdue, is a bit of cold comfort--especially as it was co-sponsored by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), whose own illustrious career has included hanging a noose outside his law office, displaying a Confederate flag in his home and creating "Confederate History Month" while he was governor of Virginia.

While the shocking brutality of Tulsa in 1921 is a reminder of how far we've come in the fight against racism, our government's continued opposition to justly compensating the survivors--or even acknowledging their existence--is one indication of how far we still have to go.
Ben Dalbey, Washington, D.C.

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