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Democrats Also in Hot Seat After DeLay Revelations


I'm Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard Law School. I serve as lead counsel for the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, one of the most shocking examples of domestic terrorism in our country's history.

ED GORDON, host:

On Capitol Hill today, the aging group will share their memories with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others. Earlier this year, Ogletree asked the US Supreme Court to allow those who worked and lived in the Greenwood section of Tulsa to seek reparations from the city and the state of Oklahoma. Here again is Charles Ogletree in his own words.

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Prof. OGLETREE: As I reflect on what happened in Tulsa, I'm just amazed and dismayed at what it would have been to live in Greenwood in the 1920s. Here was the black Wall Street. You had black doctors and black lawyers. You had black theaters and black hotels. You had black churches and black newspapers. You had a community where it's told that a dollar would circulate 35 times in the community before it left. That was a community, despite segregation, despite Jim Crow laws, prosperous, people who had the level playing field and rose to the top. It was a vibrant time in America.

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Prof. OGLETREE: I didn't know about the Tulsa Race Riots until the year 2002, and I was shocked and embarrassed that something that was so dramatic, so traumatic and so devastating of what was known as the black Wall Street would be something that escaped me completely. When I went to Tulsa for the first time to give a speech in 2002, I learned that on May 31st, 1921, there was a race riot and that a group of whites had been deputized by the local sheriff. They were armed by the local sheriff. Many of them had been drinking. And they went into Greenwood, which was known as the black Wall Street of its time, and they burned down things like the Stratford Hotel. They burned down the Dreamland Theater. They burned down churches, newspapers, all sorts of offices. They destroyed homes, and at the end of the day, 8,000 African-Americans were homeless. Their complete community of 40 square blocks had been destroyed by one of the worst race riots in our country's history.

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Prof. OGLETREE: I met these survivors, a black woman and man, 89 years old to 105, who had lived through the 1921 race riots who really had never told their story and had no opportunity to go to court and have the evidence presented in a meaningful way, and asked me to represent them. I agreed to do so, along with many other lawyers, like Johnnie Cochran and Willie Gary. It has been for me the most important legal work I've done in my nearly 30 years as a lawyer, and it's the most significant work that I've done in terms of trying to give back to a community what they so richly deserve.

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Prof. OGLETREE: It's very interesting when we think about the issue of reparations and what we've been willing to do and unwilling to do. We correctly were able to steadfastly support the right of reparations of six million Jews and descendants of those Jews who were exterminated. It took decades before anyone recognized the full extent of the harm and begin to make modest and never adequate compensation. And it's important, when we think about reparations, Tulsa should be the poster child for a clear, unambiguous and compelling case for reparations for American citizens who lost so much at the hands of the city and the state government of Oklahoma.

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Prof. OGLETREE: Today is a moment that I've been waiting for for many years. Finally members of Congress will be holding hearings to allow the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots to tell their stories. So May 10th is the beginning of a new recognition of what happened in Tulsa and it will be wonderful when 102-year-old Otis Clark comes into that meeting room and tells the members of Congress, `I was there. My family lost their lives, lost their property. I survived, and I'm here to tell you that it's time for justice in Tulsa.' It's been 84 years, but as he'll say, `I've lived 102 years to be here today. I hope you will address this issue and fix it before I pass on.'

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GORDON: Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard University. In the last two years since he filed the lawsuit on behalf of the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, 36 of them have died. The Oklahoma lawsuit seeks no financial payment to survivors or their families. Instead it requests the establishment of educational and health-care resources for current residents of Greenwood.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to comment, give us a call at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.