Johnnie Cochran isn't easily shaken. But the famed defense-lawyer-turned-civil-rights-litigator says he's really worried that one of his latest legal ventures might run aground.
Cochran is the best-known member of a legal team that has filed a reparations lawsuit on behalf of 126 living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. He is on edge not because of the merits of the case, but because of the ages of his clients. The oldest is 102. The youngest is 81.
"This is really a just cause," Cochran says, "but time isn't on our side."
His point is well taken. Opponents of reparations for slavery - the national campaign that some people think might be aided by a victory in the Oklahoma case - have long argued that no compensation should be paid for that "peculiar institution" because there are no living survivors of American slavery. The lawyers in the Oklahoma case hope to turn that argument to their advantage because some survivors of the Tulsa race riot still are alive and deserving of compensation.
Those who want compensation for the descendants of slaves also are anxious to see how far lawyers in the Oklahoma case get with another argument they believe they can use: that city and state officials were complicit in the actions of the rampaging white mob that burned and looted much of Tulsa black community and killed as many as 300 people.
June 26, 1919 Lynching of John Hartville in Ellisville Mississippi. Hanged from a gum tree alongside nearby railroad tracks, riddled with bullets, and then burned.
The 1921 race riot was sparked by a confrontation between whites who had gone to Tulsa's courthouse to lynch a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman and black men who showed up to stop them. Many members of the white mob were given weapons and deputized by local law enforcement officials, according to the 2001 report of a state commission that investigated the riot. This "state action" violated the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, argues Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., another member of the survivors' legal team.
Repaying the community
The Oklahoma riot was thrust into the national spotlight two years ago when the state commission recommended that reparations be paid to Tulsa's black community "in real and tangible form." That, however, proved to be a politically unpopular idea. So last month the lawyers working for the survivors filed a lawsuit seeking an unspecified amount of actual and punitive damages.
The survivors' legal team is gambling that it can get the case to a jury before death and the debilitating effects of old age deplete the ranks of its clients.
"We have some victims who can look you in the eyes and say we were there," Cochran said. "I hope the other side doesn't try to keep this case out of court until that's no longer true."
While there's no indication of foot-dragging by attorneys for the state and city, Cochran's concern that the case could outlive most of his clients is understandable, given the survivors' ages and the case's complexity. The complaint Cochran and his fellow lawyers filed runs 197 pages and includes a long list of alleged bad acts by public officials in the spring of 1921. That could cause the pre-trial phase of this case to drag on for years.
A possible precedent
A victory for Tulsa's race-riot victims, some believe, would chart a legal course for other reparations advocates to follow - if the "state action" argument works. Here's why: Before slavery was abolished in 1865, many states enacted laws that legitimized the cradle-to-grave enslavement of blacks. After slavery ended, many Southern states adopted laws that for nearly a century held former slaves and their descendants in a state of neo-slavery. The Tulsa case could test whether any such actions by states violate the Constitution's equal-protection clause.
First, however, the riot case has to go before a jury - hopefully, while eyewitnesses still remain.
OFFSITE: A Long Wait for Justice from the Village Voice
TULSA, OK - Black survivors and descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot sued the state and the city Monday seeking reparations for lost loved ones, destroyed businesses and burned homes.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa alleges authorities did not stop and sometimes participated in the riot that left dozens dead, many more missing and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.
The Tulsa Reparations Council has assembled a star-studded legal team, including Johnnie Cochran and civil rights attorney Dennis Sweet (right), for the lawsuit seeking unspecified damages. All are working pro bono.
"We have an obligation to fight hard and leave no stone unturned to find justice," Cochran said. "It's been too long coming, so we must act urgently."
The lawsuit names Gov. Brad Henry and Tulsa police chief Dave Been, the city of Tulsa and its police department as defendants. More than 200 survivors and victim's descendants are plaintiffs.
City attorney Martha Rupp-Carter, Phil Bacharach and Charlie Price, spokesmen for Henry and Attorney General Drew Edmondson, respectively, all said they had not received the lawsuit and could not comment.
Police spokesman Sgt. Wayne Allen said only, "I doubt any of the current (police force) members authorized" any of the atrocities allegedly committed by authorities.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which found similar allegations as in the lawsuit, recommended in February 2001 that survivors and victim's descendants be paid restitution for the May 31, 1921 riot.
Neither the city nor the state have provided any such money. Private organizations have given the more than 100 survivors about $300 apiece, but the plaintiffs said that was not enough.
"That won't pay for a new house or the property the city took from us," said Otis G. Clark, 100, who said white rioters killed his stepfather and his bulldog "Bob" and burned his family's home.
The riot, one of the nation's worst acts of racial violence, started after shots were exchanged between a white lynch mob and blacks trying to protect the intended target, a shoeshiner accused of assaulting a white woman. The shoeshiner was never prosecuted.
Greenwood, a thriving black community, was devastated and has never fully recovered, and investigators estimate that as many as 300 people, mostly blacks, died. About $2 million in property was damaged, the lawsuit says.
Few property owners were compensated because most insurance plans did not cover riot damage, and a host of lawsuits, filed by both blacks and whites after the riot, appear to have been unsuccessful.
"Tulsa gave us a check marked insufficient funds, but today we have some mighty debt collectors," said Tulsa lawyer James Goodwin, one of 16 plaintiffs' attorneys.
The lawsuit alleges that Tulsa police deputized a white mob, and National Guard troops used violence to quell what they perceived to be a "negro uprising."
Also, after the riot, the city of Tulsa enacted illegal zoning requirements preventing blacks from rebuilding their homes, the lawsuit claims. Survivors, like Clark, said the city took their property without due process.
Further, a state law limiting municipalities' liabilities is unconstitutional, the lawsuit claims.
"I would like to have some reparations if they're going to be giving some," said survivor Roanna McClure, 89, who waited out the riot in a neighbor's basement. "They set my grandma's house on fire."
The Legislature passed laws in 2001 aimed at revitalizing Greenwood, setting up a scholarship fund for college-bound descendants of riot victims and appropriating $1.5 million for a riot memorial.
The city is studying economic development opportunities for Greenwood and is providing in-kind services for the $20 million memorial, said Dwain Midget, assistant to the mayor.