WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has denounced "the terrible devastation" caused by the Tulsa race riots in 1921 but ruled that it was too late for a historic lawsuit seeking to force the state and city governments to pay reparations for the harm done to black residents.
US District Judge James O. Ellison, ruling in Tulsa Friday, dismissed a case that a team of lawyers representing survivors of the riots or their descendants had hoped to make into a test case against government agencies, the first of what they expected would be several such cases around the country.
Other lawsuits, seeking reparations for slavery, have been dismissed, but those were against businesses. The Tulsa case was an attempt to open a broad legal assault that would hold governments financially responsible for discrimination against African-Americans.
The riots, occurring over two days in the late spring of 1921, destroyed the prosperous black community of Greenwood just north of Tulsa's downtown. The violence killed between 100 and 300, destroyed about 1,250 homes, and leveled every structure in the neighborhood. Judge Ellison called the riots "the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War."
Oklahoma's legislature in 2001 accepted "moral responsibility on behalf of the state and its citizens" and vowed never again to "subordinate another race," but it refused to pay reparations. That refusal led to the lawsuit by more than 200 individuals, seeking reparations from the state and the city of Tulsa and its police department.
The judge, however, ruled that the lawsuit was many years too late. He stressed that he was ruling only on the legal question of when a deadline for suing had passed and his ruling was not intended to "speak to the tragedy of the riot or the terrible devastation it caused."
Ellison also said he felt "no comfort or satisfaction in this result" and commented that "there should be none" for the state and city.
In rejecting the case, he noted that the state has a two-year time limit for filing civil rights lawsuits and that time started running soon after the riots. He rejected the claim that those who sued did not know the full story of the riots until after a state commission completed a full report on it in February 2001 and that the two-year filing period started then.
The judge said the commission report "brings needed attention to an extremely tragic event in our city's and our state's history, and, hopefully, will be a tool for healing and uniting communities." But, he said, he could find no legal basis for using the report as the starting point for the legal claims.
Ellison also turned aside an argument that the deadline should have been interrupted because state and city officials barred some who were victimized by the riots from bringing legal claims years before. Others had attempted earlier to pursue claims, he ruled.
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard law professor and head of the legal team that brought the case, said "this is not the final word from us. This 20th century travesty deserves a 21st century solution." He said the case would be appealed, adding: "This has always been viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. There is a lot of fight left in our clients."
Although Ellison dismissed the case, he denounced a request by the city of Tulsa that the plaintiffs' lawyers be punished because they knew the case was filed too late. He said such a motion was the result of a "contentious attitude" that "has been destructive and wasteful of judicial resources."
Noting that the claims in the case were serious and that the question of the filing deadline was not simple, the judge said the motion for disciplinary action "only fuels the belief that the state and city are ignoring their moral responsibility for the riot. Such conduct is unfortunate."