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Introduction of the "John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act"

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. CONYERS. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to reintroduce the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act. This legislation will create a federal cause of action to allow the survivors of the Tulsa-Greenwood Riot of 1921 to seek a determination on the merits of their civil rights and other claims against the perpetrators of the riot in a federal court of law.

This legislation is named in honor of the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, the noted historian, who was a first-hand witness to the destructive impact that the riot had on the African-American community of Tulsa. Dr. Franklin made numerous scholarly contributions to the understanding of the long term effects of the riot on the city and worked to keep the issue alive in history and on the minds of policymakers. On April 24, 2007, he served as a witness, testifying in favor of the legislation, and its passage would be a fitting tribute to his memory and to a community that has never received its fair day in court.

The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the Nation's most prosperous African-American communities entering the decade of the Nineteen Twenties. Serving over 8000 residents, the community boasted two newspapers, over a dozen churches, and hundreds of African-American-owned businesses, with the commercial district known nationally as the ``Negro Wall Street.'' In May 1921, all that came to an end as 42 square blocks of the community were burned to the ground and up to 300 of its residents were killed by a racist mob. In the wake of the violence, the State and local governments quashed claims for redress and effectively erased the incident from official memory.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was one of the most destructive and costly attacks upon an American community in our Nation's history. However, no convictions were obtained for the incidents of murder, arson or larceny connected with the riot, and none of the more than 100 contemporaneously filed lawsuits by residents and property owners were successful in recovering damages from insurance companies to assist in the reconstruction of the community.

The case of the Tulsa-Greenwood Riot victims is worthy of congressional attention because substantial evidence suggests that governmental officials deputized and armed the mob and that the National Guard joined in the destruction. The report commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1997, and published in 2001, uncovered new information and detailed, for the first time, the extent of the involvement by the State and city government in prosecuting and erasing evidence of the riot. This new evidence was crucial for the formulation of a substantial case, but its timeliness raised issues at law, and resulted in a dismissal on statute of limitation grounds. In dismissing the survivor's claims, however, the Court found that extraordinary circumstances might support extending the statute of limitations, but that Congress did not establish rules applicable to the case at bar. With this legislation, we have the opportunity to provide closure for a group of claimants--many over 100 years old--and to close the book on a tragic chapter in history.

Racism, and its violent manifestations, are part of our Nation's past that we cannot avoid. With the prosecution of historic civil rights claims, both civil and criminal, we encourage a process of truth and reconciliation that can heal historic wounds. In this case, the Court took ``no great comfort'' in finding that there was no legal avenue through which the plaintiffs could bring their claims. The ``Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act'' would simply give Tulsans and all Oklahomans, white and black, victims and non-victims, their day in court. Without that opportunity, we will all continue to be victims of our past.

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