Scots professor takes legal action against US city for racist massacre

A Scottish law professor is spearheading a pioneering lawsuit against authorities in a US city for their part in the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.
Professor Eric Miller is part of the legal team seeking justice for the near century-old atrocity. Picture: Loyola Marymount UniversityProfessor Eric Miller is part of the legal team seeking justice for the near century-old atrocity. Picture: Loyola Marymount University
Professor Eric Miller is part of the legal team seeking justice for the near century-old atrocity. Picture: Loyola Marymount University

Eric Miller, from Glasgow, is a driving force behind the historic legal action on behalf of the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

In what was one of the darkest chapters in modern American history, up to 300 African Americans were killed and around 5,000 were left homeless as a prosperous black neighbourhood was razed to the ground.

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Now, nearly a century on, the Scot is part of the legal team seeking to hold the perpetrators of the atrocity accountable, and secure reparations for survivors and their relatives.

The lawsuit argues that the racial inequality which blights the city in the 21st century can be traced back to the 99 year-old massacre.

It has been served against the authorities in the Oklahoman city, who, Miller says, compounded the suffering by silencing the once thriving black community and hindering their efforts to rebuild.

“Marginalising the black survivors, diaspora, and Tulsa community minimises the continuing impact of the massacre on these people today,” the Scot said.

“None of them have received compensation for their losses. Their voices are missing from the histories of the massacre.”

For decades, the events of 31 May 1921 were little known, both in the US and abroad, but awareness of the atrocity has surged thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement.

A further, unintentional publicity boost came in the form of a controversial rally held in the city in June by US president Donald Trump .

Those discovering the massacre anew learned how white mobs, aided and abetted by Tulsa officials, attacked a group of African American men who were demonstrating against the arrest of Dick Rowland. The teenage shoeshiner had been falsely accused of sexual assault, and there were fears he would be lynched.

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That flashpoint presaged a day of carnage. White police officers, together with members of the Oklahoma National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan, took to the streets to hurl firebombs through the windows of black-owned properties. In the skies above, planes owned by local oil companies dropped firebombs.

By nightfall, the entire community of Greenwood - an affluent, vibrant centre nicknamed ‘Black Wall Street’ - was either ablaze or reduced to rubble, with hundreds left dead on the streets.

According to eyewitnesses, the bodies were piled up on trucks and hurled into the Arkansas River. No one has ever been prosecuted or held accountable for the massacre.

Among those who witnessed the bloodletting was Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of only two known remaining survivors of the massacre, and the lead plaintiff in the legal action.

At the age of 105, Randle, known as ‘Mother’, still experiences flashbacks of the trauma, haunted by visions of bodies strewn across Greenwood’s streets.

“She constantly relives the terror of 1921, and yet the city of Tulsa has done nothing to compensate her for the damage it inflicted upon her life,” Miller said.

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For him, the legal action is among the highlights of a career dedicated to racial justice, a calling which owes no small part to his experience growing up in Scotland as the grandson of a Jamaican migrant.

After graduating with first-class honours in law from the University of Edinburgh, he studied at Harvard Law School, before working for Charles Ogletree Jr, a prominent legal mind whose protegees included a young Barack Obama.

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Now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has testified to the US Congress on the moral and legal case for reparations, he is determined to help Tulsa’s black community secure a long overdue justice.

The lawsuit, filed at Tulsa County Court, does not specify an exact sum to be paid. Instead, it calls for the creation of a victim compensation fund, money to help the descendants of victims attend further education, and an array of education and mental health projects.

“The remedy for a public nuisance is for the folks who caused the problem to fix it,” Miller added. “Lawyers call this remedy ‘abatement.’

“We will ensure that the remaining survivors, the descendants of the victims, and members of the Greenwood and north Tulsa community are the people who get to tell the history of the massacre and who direct the financial, social, cultural, and political wellbeing of their community.”

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