Tulsa’s Debts to Justice Keep Mounting

Full-frame weathered concrete wall with a torn red poster in the middle dispicting a black fist with "Never forget Tulsa" written bellow.
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On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd of more than two hundred thousand Americans who had come to Washington, DC to pressure the government to pass the Civil Rights Act. With words sprinkled with Holy Ghost power King said,

 Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

As millions of Americans on both the left and right of the political spectrum either celebrated or denounced the decisions in the Donald J. Trump and Hunter Biden cases, two privileged White men who had engaged in documented criminal behavior, millions more ignored another case. This case bears historical significance and demonstrated the true nature of America’s “justice” system.

History of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 on a wall at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation ParkViola Fletcher (110) and Lessie Benningfield Randle (109),  two elderly African American women are the last two survivors of one of the nation’s worse episodes of racial violence. They survived the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre. As the last two plaintiffs to assert their rights in a 2020 filing under the Oklahoma Public Nuisance Law, Fletcher and Benningfield Randle sued the Tulsa County Sheriff’s and Oklahoma Military Departments and asked for relief and reparations for the destruction of their community.

Preoccupied with the Present

After walking up to the bank of justice, and presenting their promissory note, they saw the window violently shut in their faces.

While my Republicans friends loudly protested the 34 convictions of a man who had sex with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to hide it from the American people as he ran for president, they were mute on the case of these two Black women. Also, my Democratic friends who showered sympathy and understanding on Hunter Biden, who struggles with substance and sex addiction, and who lied on an application so that he could purchase a firearm, showed little sympathy towards Fletcher and Randle.

No Precedent for Justice

This Wednesday (June 12), the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ grievances do not fall within the scope of Oklahoma’s public nuisance laws. The eight White and one African American members of the jury unanimously ruled the women’s complaint did not fall within the scope of the law.

This is hard to understand when  the very definition of a nuisance includes an unlawful act or omitted duty that “injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of others,” and a nuisance is public when it “affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons.”

Additionally, the State Court said its legal precedent limits public nuisance liability to defendants “committing crimes constituting of a nuisance, or causing physical injury to property or participating in an offensive activity that rendered the property uninhabitable.”

The court said that those who perpetrated the crime and were criminally liable, were already dead. Therefore, “Plaintiffs’ grievance with the social and economic inequities created by the Tulsa Race Massacre is legitimate and worthy of merit, … However, the law does not permit us to extend the scope of our public nuisance doctrine beyond what the Legislature has authorized to afford Plaintiffs the justice they are seeking.”

In other words, because the plaintiffs couldn’t use the racist court system in existence at the time of the massacre, they couldn’t receive justice now.

The Makings of Tulsa, Oklahoma

So, what was the Tulsa Riot? In the 1830s and the 1850s the US government forcefully removed the Cherokee and Seminole nations from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Among those who were sent were hundreds of African Americans who were a part of those nations. They were given land and made promises by the federal government. Therefore, African Americans had been a part of Oklahoma since before it’s statehood.

After the Civil War, African Americans attempted to make a life for themselves in the South. However, they quickly found out that the South was an extremely hostile region, which made life untenable for the newly freed African Americans. After a short period of promise, the White South erected a rigid wall of separation designed to render African Americans second class citizens. As they tightened the reigns and enforced their prejudices, African Americans looked for an alternative to the South.

In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton would lead thousands of African Americans into Kansas. These “Exodusters” settled into Kansas, building all Black towns. As they built their community, Edward P. McCabe, a Louisiana freedman who had moved to Kansas began settling African Americans in Oklahoma. Working with several other African Americans they established 25 all-Black towns. They went so far as to establish an organization called the First Independent Black Brotherhood to lobby the government to make Oklahoma an all-Black state. African American leaders wanted Oklahoma to be a Black and Native American refuge.

Violent Racial Envy

They built a prosperous community, where they could feed, protect and educate their children. They invested and built an economic floor.

Unfortunately, oil was discovered in the area and Whites flooded into Oklahoma. As African Americans built a prosperous commercial existence, their success attracted the ire of the White community. By 1920, the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the most prosperous African American community in the country.

The success of the community attracted the envy of poor Whites who were jealous of the African America success. The state legislature introduced legislation designed to strip African Americans of their franchise rights.

They manufactured an incident to humble the African American community and ensure their subjugation.

On Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland an African American shoe-shine person entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, on South Main Street to use the restroom. Sarah Page, a young White elevator operator screamed when Rowland tripped and touched her on the elevator. Rowland fled the scene. The next morning he was arrested. Rumors circulated that Rowland had assaulted Page. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page.

White mobs gathered outside the courthouse, demanding the sheriff allow them to lynch Rowland. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused, barricading the top floor to protect the Black teenager. About 25 Black veterans armed with rifles and pistols came to help the Sheriff. The Sheriff sent the Black men away. About 1,500 Whites broke into the armory and stole rifles and ammunition. After someone fired a shot, the White community viciously attacked the Black community destroying Greenwood. The fury and anger they displayed shocked the world.

Unpaid Debt

A 2021 New York Times report noted the amazing prosperity of the area, and it’s devastation during the massacre:

“Brick and wood-frame homes dotted the landscape, along with blocks lined with grocery stores, hotels, nightclubs, billiard halls, theaters, doctor’s offices and churches. Greenwood was so promising, so vibrant that it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was erased in less than 24 hours by racial violence — sending the dead into mass graves and forever altering family trees. Hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out. They were casualties of a furious and heavily armed white mob of looters and arsonists. One factor that drove the violence: resentment toward the Black prosperity found in block after block of Greenwood. The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars — detailed in a 2001 state commission report. For two decades, the report has been one of the most comprehensive accounts to reveal the horrific details of the massacre — among the worst racial terror attacks in the nation’s history — as well as the government’s culpability.”

No one was ever held legally responsible for the deaths and destruction in Greenwood and no survivor ever received financial compensation for their losses.

Justice Again Denied

Fast forward to 2020. The few remaining descendants sued, asking for reparations. After two years of legal wrangling, in July 2023 the Tulsa County District Court dismissed the case using statute of limitation arguments.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. The nine-member court upheld the decision made by a district court.

“Plaintiffs do not point to any physical injury to property in Greenwood rendering it uninhabitable that could be resolved by way of injunction or other civil remedy,” the court wrote in its decision. “Today we hold that relief is not possible under any set of facts that could be established consistent with plaintiff’s allegations.”

As I look at this decision, I remember Dr. King’s piercing words, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Well, Dr. King, I think that Ms. Fletcher and Ms. Randle would tell you they got a bad check.

Dr. King was right, God is going to judge us for the way we have administered justice in this country.

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I will never be satisfied until Christians are more angered by denial of justice for historical wrongs than they are about philandering playboys.

 

 

 

 

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