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Oklahoma Supreme Court dismisses suit over reparations by survivors of Tulsa massacre

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Oklahoma’s highest court rejected a reparations lawsuit brought by Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle, who lived through the racist attack over 100 years ago.


STEVE INSKEEP: Oklahoma’s highest court says it will not approve reparations for a notorious episode in American history. In 1921, a mob attacked a part of Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street.” In recent years, Oklahoma leaders across the political spectrum have denounced this episode. Now, we’re finding out what the law can do, if anything, after so many years. Two women who survived that attack went to court. Our colleagues at KWGS in Tulsa have been talking with them and reporter Ben Abrams joins us now. Ben, good morning.

BEN ABRAMS: Good morning, Steve.

SI: Who are the plaintiffs here?

BA: Their names are Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher. Let me tell you Fletcher’s story. She grew up in a time of segregation. Tulsa had a prosperous Black community, at least, until 1921. Fletcher was seven that year and armed white citizens burned much of her neighborhood called Greenwood. They destroyed her family’s home, [her family] ended up living in a tent. She remembers all that today at the age of 110. One of my colleagues talked with Fletcher and she said she has lived so long by trying to get along with others.

VIOLA FLETCHER: “Being fair, and— with others, and with their lifestyle and everything, I’ve always, you know, been on the honest side, and cooperate.”

BA: Her younger brother was also a plaintiff in this case. He died in October.

SI: Although Lessie Randle, another plaintiff, is still with us at 109. So, two plaintiffs still alive. Why did they sue?

BA: They said that the destruction of their neighborhood violated Oklahoma’s public nuisance law. They're seeking damages from local governments who they allege were complicit in the massacre. 

SI: Now this gets to a big issue here, one that makes a lot of people angry: reparations. Should there be reparations for slavery? Should there be reparations for segregation? What about when the victims are all dead? But, in this case, you have living plaintiffs who say they were affected. So, what, according to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, was wrong with their case?

BA: So, the state supreme court didn't agree that their complaints actually fell under the state’s public nuisance law. That’s partially because this statute requires the plaintiffs to propose some kind of specific remedy which the court says they didn’t have.

SI: This feels profound to me, Ben— because you're saying that, according to the law, they had to propose some way to fix what everybody agrees is an act of historical injustice and the court is, essentially, coming back and saying 'well, there's actually no way to fix this event in the past.'

BA: That's about right, Steve. This ruling is complicated, but, among other things, the plaintiffs alleged long term damage to their neighborhood. The court says there is nothing to repair about the neighborhood right now. The plaintiffs say they did present a general framework for future reparations. That’s been done in other cases— over opioids, say— but the court said this is the job of the legislature not the court system.

SI: Well, having lost at the highest level in Oklahoma, what do the plaintiffs do now, if anything?

BA: So, the the survivors’ legal team is adamant that they’re actually going to keep going. Their legal team says they're planning to file a petition for rehearing to the state supreme court. It's unclear if that's going to be successful. The city of Tulsa's response, on the other hand, was a little more tepid. They say they respect the court's decision, but they want to continue other initiatives to help Greenwood residents rather than this direct reparations case.

SI: Ben, thanks so much for the reporting, I really appreciate it.

BA: Thank you.

SI: That's Ben Abrams of KWGS in Tulsa.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ben Abrams is a news reporter and All Things Considered host for KWGS.
Check out all of Ben's links and contact info here.
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