Race riot survivors argue against dismissal

Tuesday, December 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Otis G. Clark recalled in an instant Tuesday the bullets that destroyed his neighborhood 82 years ago and the racial climate that kept him from seeking justice until now.

Blacks ``didn't have no rights back then,'' the 100-year-old survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race riot said. ``If they tried to do anything, they were put in jail.''

Intimidation is one reason why a two-year statute of limitations should be waived in a federal lawsuit against the city and state, lawyers for Clark and about 450 other riot survivors and victims' descendants argue in a pleading filed Monday.

They are seeking reparations for slain loved ones, burned homes and businesses lost in the destruction of the city's black business district.

The city and state are asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. They argue the statute of limitations has expired and that the state is immune from being sued in federal court for civil damages.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers say a hostile climate that blamed blacks for the riot, as well as a ``conspiracy of silence'' around the facts, contribute to extraordinary circumstances that mean the statute of limitations should be waived.

``The city and the state have said, `These events occurred 82 years ago, where were you?''' said Michael Hausfeld, a Washington, D.C., attorney who serves on the survivors' legal team.

``You were busy surviving,'' he said at a news conference attended by at least nine survivors. ``We should ask them, `Where were THEY for 82 years?'''

John Hope Franklin, a nationally recognized authority on black history and son of a survivor, said that after the riot, survivors were ``stumbling ... trying to get back on our feet.''

``I think the full impact of that riot was not seen and felt until later,'' the 88-year-old said.

In seeking the dismissal, the city denies allegations that survivors were lulled by false promises into delaying their claims until it was too late. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed by blacks after the riot, according to court documents.

The survivors allege that they did not have the information they needed to bring their suit until a commission created by the Legislature published a report on the riot in 2001.

But the city and state argue that most of the ``new'' information was taken from court transcripts and news accounts that were circulated widely in the 1920s.

The plaintiffs have requested a hearing on the matter before U.S. Senior District Judge James Ellison next month.

The fighting broke out May 30, 1921, following a confrontation between blacks and whites outside a courthouse where a black man was being held on allegations of assaulting a white woman. The confirmed death toll was 37 but some estimates range as high as 300.

Clark was 18 years old at the time. He saw a friend shot in the hand. A white mob burned his grandparents' and his parents' homes, he said, denying him an inheritance.

``I'm glad we made up our minds to do something about what we lost years ago,'' he said.

The lawsuit represents 150 survivors and about 300 descendants and family members of those who lost property or their lives.