State Supreme Court Dismisses Tulsa Race Massacre Lawsuit

( – The Oklahoma Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit brought by the last survivors of a 1921 race massacre. Two centenarians had brought the suit against the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in an attempt to get compensation for a race riot that killed at least 39 people, but the state’s highest court just ruled that they don’t have standing to sue. The plaintiffs can appeal — but their age is against them.

Over the Memorial Day weekend in 1921, Tulsa shoeshiner Dick Rowland, who was black, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. On May 31, when rumors started to circulate that he would be lynched, a group of about 75 black men, some of them armed, surrounded the jail to protect him.

The sheriff convinced them he wouldn’t allow a lynching and persuaded them to go home — but as they left, violence broke out and triggered a gunfight between armed black and white groups. The situation quickly spiraled, with mobs spilling into the city’s prosperous, majority-black Greenwood district, attacking residents and burning homes and stores. By the time the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law on June 1, at least 26 black residents and 13 whites were dead.

A hundred and one years later, three black Oklahomans who lived through the violence — Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis — sued the city of Tulsa, seeking reconstruction in the Greenwood district and a payment to a survivors’ fund. Their case was dismissed with prejudice last July, but they appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected their appeal, ruling that while the plaintiffs have a legitimate grievance — the lingering social effects of the damage done to the Greenwood district 103 years ago — that damage “can only be resolved by policymakers — not the courts.” The decision is probably the end of their legal battle. As they brought the suit under state law they can’t appeal to the US Supreme Court; meanwhile, Van Ellis died last year while Randle is 109 and Fletcher is 110. Time for an appeal is not on their side.

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