Oklahoma Supreme Court Dismisses Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors’ Lawsuit, Halting Decades-Long Quest for Justice

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit brought by the last two surviving witnesses of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre—Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher—and civil rights attorney and founder of non-profit Justice For Greenwood Damario Solomon-Simmons. This decision, which blocks their decades-long quest for justice, sends a chilling message to advocates for racial justice across the nation.

The dismissal of this lawsuit—after previously being dismissed on the grounds that “being connected to a historical event does not provide a person with unlimited rights to seek compensation”—brings to light a more extensive issue in America’s approach to racial justice. The lawsuit was filed under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, arguing that the actions of the White mob continue to have a significant impression on the city today. The survivors argued that not only did this tragedy cause generations of havoc and trauma upon those who experienced it, the city of Tulsa benefitted from this catastrophe by marketing it as a tourist attraction citing “unjust enrichment” without paying it forward to the sectors of the community most impacted This affected Tulsa’s history of racial division and tension which stems from the massacre. Furthermore, the remaining survivors were seeking a detailed account of the property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in north Tulsa, and the creation of a victims compensation fund- including other community benefits. 

The court ruled that while the “grievance with the social and economic inequities created by the Tulsa Race Massacre is legitimate and worthy of merit.” Their written decision went on to say, “However, the law does not permit us to extend the scope of our public nuisance doctrine beyond what the Legislature has authorized to afford Plaintiffs the justice they are seeking,”

Despite the growing reparations movement, the ruling highlights the deeply rooted injustices plaguing Black communities for centuries. Reparations are more than just financial compensation. The act of recompense ensures the rights and dignity denied to Black Americans for generations will see a turnaround. 

The Tulsa Race Massacre, an appalling display of racial violence in U.S. history, took place over 18 hours from May 31 to June 1, 1921. The prosperous Black community of “Black Wall Street” in the affluent Greenwood District of Tulsa was left in ruins by a White mob armed with rifles, guns, and incendiary devices dropped from airplanes. The destruction included over 35 square blocks of homes, businesses, and churches. It is estimated that between 100 and 300 Black residents lost their lives, with thousands more left homeless, and the economic wealth of the community obliterated.

tulsa race massacre
Burned buildings after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. Image: Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images.

Viola Fletcher, now 110, was merely seven years old when the devastation struck her community. Lessie Benningfield Randle, then just six, vividly remembers the night of terror and chaos. Throughout their lives, both women have carried the heavy burden of that trauma, dedicating themselves to seeking justice and reparations for the losses endured.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which dismisses the lawsuit seeking reparations and acknowledgment of the massacre, stands as a significant setback for the survivors. The trauma of those who had to live in internment camps because their homes were destroyed. To this day there is a decline in homeownership which leads to generational wealth for Black Tulsa residents, according to data published by Brookings.

“Only 3% of the residents live in Black-majority neighborhoods-Tulsans in Black-majority neighborhoods are largely shut out of jobs in financial firms and institutions. Black-owned businesses comprise only 1.25% of the area’s nearly 20,000 businesses.”

View of the front page of an edition of the Black Dispatch newspaper, detailing incidents of the Tulsa Race Massacre (which occurred the previous day) on June 1, 1921. Image: Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images.

Reparation advocates have long stressed it is crucial not only for the financial losses suffered by the Black community but also for the immense harm inflicted. To consistently ignore the opportunity to confront and make amends for the dark chapters of America’s racial history is a reality that as a nation, we cannot continue to ignore.

Pushing for comprehensive policies that address systemic racism and economic disparities is the way forward. For the descendants of those who perished in the Tulsa massacre and other racial atrocities, this court decision outlines the work that still lies ahead.

The historical remembrance of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the stories of Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher must remain in our collective consciousness. The battle for reparations and racial justice is far from over; it demands collective action and engagement from all who seek a fair and just world.

The legal team for the Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 shared a statement directly with EBONY:

“Our clients, Viola ‘Mother’ Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield ‘Mother’ Randle, will file a petition for rehearing with the Oklahoma Supreme Court asking the Court to reconsider its decision.  

The destruction of forty-square blocks of property on the night of May 31, 1921 through murder and arson clearly meets the definition of a public nuisance under Oklahoma law.  Faithful application of the law compels the conclusion that Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher have stated a claim for relief.  They are entitled to a trial.  Yet the Court held that Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher have asked the Court to decide a “political” question that is beyond the purview of the Court.  Incredibly, during the extensive oral argument the Supreme Court held on the appeal, not a single member of the nine-member Court asked a question about this political question theory.  It is not a political question simply because the suit seeks to remedy wrongful acts perpetrated by a white mob against Black people – the court system is the very place where such harms are meant to be remedied.

In 103 years since the Massacre, no court has held a trial addressing the Massacre and no individual or entity has been held accountable for it.  As justice is delayed once again in the Oklahoma court system, we call upon the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the Massacre under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007.  The Massacre happened 103 years ago, but it remains a vivid memory of Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher who as young girls saw their community destroyed in the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. 

As Mother Fletcher celebrated her 110th birthday last month and Mother Randle will celebrate the same birthday later this year, time is of the essence for this investigation to begin.”   

Legal Team for the Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Updated: June 12, 2024 — 9:02 pm