Friday, June 1, 2012

Conyers Reintroduces H.R. 5593, the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012

(WASHINGTON)—Today, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) hosted Dr. Olivia Hooker, a survivor of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot of 1921 and a notable professor and the first African American woman to enlist in the United States Coast Guard. Dr. Hooker, along with Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree met with members of Congress to reflect on the 91st anniversary of the Riot, and to discuss proposals before Congress that address the need for reconciliation and justice for the aging survivors.

On this day in 1921, a devastating race riot began in Tulsa, Oklahoma which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the destruction of the city’s predominately African American Greenwood District.  In the immediate aftermath, local authorities blocked survivors from seeking compensation and suppressed the history of the riot.   In 2001, the State of Oklahoma’s Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended the State make restitution to the remaining survivors but the federal statute of limitation prevented them from filing claims in federal court.  This month, Ranking Member Conyers reintroduced the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act to amend federal law to allow survivors to finally seek justice in federal court.           

“The John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012 will create a Federal cause of action to allow the survivors of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot of 1921 to seek a determination on the merits of their civil rights and other claims against the perpetrators of the Riot in a federal court of law,” said Rep. Conyers.

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“This legislation is named in honor of the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, the noted historian, who was a first-hand witness to the destructive impact that the riot had on the African American community of Tulsa.  Dr. Franklin made numerous scholarly contributions to the understanding of the long term effects of the riot on the city and worked to keep the issue alive in history and on the minds of policymakers.  On April 24, 2007, he served as a witness at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, testifying in favor of the legislation, and its passage would be a fitting tribute to his memory and to a community which has never received its fair day in court. 

“The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the nation’s most prosperous African American communities entering the decade of the Nineteen Twenties.  Serving over 8,000 residents, the community boasted two newspapers, over a dozen churches, and hundreds of African American-owned businesses, with the commercial district known nationally as the ‘Negro Wall Street.’  In May 1921, all that came to an end as 42 square blocks of the community were burned to the ground and up to 300 of its residents were killed by a racist mob.  In the wake of the violence, the State and local governments quashed claims for redress and effectively erased the incident from official memory.

“The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was one of the most destructive and costly attacks upon an American community in our nation’s history.  However, no convictions were obtained for the incidents of murder, arson or larceny connected with the riot, and none of the more than 100 contemporaneously filed lawsuits by residents and property owners were successful in recovering damages from insurance companies to assist in the reconstruction of the community.

“The case of the Tulsa-Greenwood Riot victims is worthy of Congressional attention because substantial evidence suggests that government officials deputized and armed the mob and that the National Guard  joined in the destruction.  The report commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1997, and published in 2001, uncovered new information and detailed, for the first time, the extent of the involvement by the State and city government in erasing evidence of the riot.  This new evidence was crucial for the formulation of a substantial case, but its timeliness raised issues at law, and resulted in a dismissal on statute of limitation grounds.  In dismissing the survivor’s claims, however, the Court found that extraordinary circumstances might support extending the statute of limitations, but that Congress did not establish rules applicable to the case at bar.  With this legislation, we have the opportunity to provide closure for a group of claimants -- many over 100 years old -- and the ability close the book on a tragic chapter in American history.  

“We have all been saddened by the recent passing of Otis Granville Clark.  At 109 years young, Mr. Clark was among thousands of Tulsans who resided in the African American community of Greenwood and witnessed a white mob invading the community and burning it to the ground.  Clark was 19 years old at the time and fled the state of Oklahoma in fear of his life.

“Racism, and its violent manifestations, are part of our nation’s past that we cannot avoid.  With the prosecution of historical civil rights claims, both civil and criminal, we encourage a process of truth and reconciliation which can heal historic wounds.  In this case, the Court took ‘no great comfort’ in finding that there was no legal avenue through which the plaintiffs could bring their claims.  H.R. 5593 would simply give Tulsans and all Oklahomans, white and black, victims and non-victims, their day in court.  Without that opportunity, we will all continue to be victims of our past.”

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