Early exposure to prejudice drove Eric Miller across the Atlantic to demand reparations for African American victims of Oklahoma’s infamous massacre, he tells Martyn McLaughlin.
He was the mixed race boy from Glasgow who wrestled with doubts and discrimination over his Scots-Caribbean heritage, only to grow into the man playing a leading role in the long and painful quest to deliver justice to those wronged by America’s original sin.
A leading Scottish law professor, whose lifelong passion for race politics and social justice was forged on the streets of Glasgow, is spearheading a legal fight for reparations for the US victims of slavery and segregation.
Eric Miller, who is representing the victims of a century-old race massacre regarded as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, has become one of only a handful of people to testify before the US Congress on how the nation might make amends for the darkest chapter in its young history.
Amid growing political support for reparations among Democratic presidential hopefuls, the Scot has emerged as an influential figure at the heart of a debate that has polarised generations of Americans.
In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Miller revealed the racism he encountered as a boy and young man in Glasgow helped shape his values, and said his pursuit of restorative justice for the victims of slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws has provided an avenue to explore and resolve questions surrounding his own identity.
A little over a fortnight ago, Miller appeared before a rare gathering of a House of Representatives subcommittee tasked with determining how, if at all, the wrongs of his adopted homeland’s bloody, racist legacy can be righted.
At an emotionally charged hearing, he detailed the “destruction” and “disempowerment” wrought by race-targeted atrocities, and called for a legislative overhaul which would allow the descendants of those who toiled and lost their lives to pursue litigation.
He told politicians that while many victims, as well as perpetrators, of state-sanctioned racial violence were “readily identifiable” through public and private records, time-limited bars prevent the families of those who suffered from seeking financial damages.
He is now urging US legislators to consider “specific legal remedies” which would address the statutes of limitations, and acknowledge how, even in 2019, harm continues to be caused by the “invidious legacy” of slavery and segregation.
Miller’s journey from Scotland’s biggest city to Washington DC is an unlikely one, but the role this country played in determining his future was unmistakable, and in part, inglorious.
One of three children born into a Labour-supporting family in Glasgow’s Westerton area, his father, Jimmy, was a pioneering orthopaedic surgeon, while his mother, Margaret, was a ward nurse at Glasgow Royal Infirmary who went on to become a lecturer at Jordanhill College.
But it was Miller’s grandfather, James, who had perhaps the most powerful influence on him. A Jamaican migrant who arrived in Scotland in 1919 in search of work, he met – and married – Caroline Coleman, a white Scotswoman, despite some objections from her parents.
Miller’s grandfather relished his new life in Glasgow, becoming a lifelong supporter of the city’s other club, Partick Thistle. The young Miller shared his passion, travelling to home and away games.
Certain flashpoints, however, made him realise how even amongst the throng on the terrace, they stood out, such as encountering members of the National Front handing out literature outside Ibrox.
It was an early exposure to the kind of intolerance Miller also encountered in his schooling at Glasgow Academy in the city’s west end.
“My experience at school somewhat radicalised me to issues of race,” he says. “There were very few people of colour there, and there weren’t that many black people in Scotland period.
“At home there were discussions of being black in Scotland. My mother’s white, my grandmother’s white, and my father hoped we would be treated as white. But that didn’t happen.”
The sense of otherness was heightened when Miller started to become politically conscious around the age of 15. A turning point came during a visit to the Paperback Centre, a socialist bookshop in Glasgow’s Hope Street, which provided a refuge for Miller and his comrades in Glasgow Academy’s socialist society (membership: three). There, he discovered the seminal “Two Speeches” pamphlet by the black civil rights leader, Malcolm X.
“I finally found someone who spoke to the alienation I felt and who articulated a sense of black pride,” Miller remembers. “It was essentially the first time that I understood who I really was, and it provided a framework for articulating black power as a legitimate demand.”
Intellectually emboldened, Miller excelled academically and was accepted to study law at the University of Edinburgh. After graduating in 1991 with first-class honours, he realised the most obvious route to explore his interest in racial justice lay across the Atlantic.
The young Miller’s prowess took him to the prestigious Harvard Law School, where his studies eventually led to a research assistant post with Charles Ogletree Jr, a prominent legal mind who, only a few years previously, had taught another young man toying with issues of race, identity and the search for a coherent self. He was called Barack Obama.
At the time, the publication of The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks, a book by Randall Robinson, a leading black lawyer and activist, was making waves. Its central argument called for the enactment of race-based reparation programmes as restitution for the continued social and economic issues afflicting the black community. It struck a chord with Miller.
“It ignited a massive debate among the left progressive African American community, and the reaction from the mainstream was overwhelmingly negative,” he recalls. “The issue of reparations was seen as a ridiculous fringe concern.”
Undeterred, Robinson and Ogletree formed an organisation known as the Reparations Coordinating Committee, a cluster of lawyers, academics and activists who agreed to work pro bono in an attempt to finally close the book on the country’s most shameful chapter. Miller was asked to join their cause.
He remembers: “When they formed the committee with people like Johnnie Cochran, Ogletree tasked me with doing research into what kind of reparations lawsuit would be the most viable to file.
“Up until then, everyone had been focusing on a slavery lawsuit, which I thought was possible, but a long shot. I thought a Jim Crow lawsuit would be easier.”
The committee’s work coincided with the final report of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, a five-year reckoning into the causes and damages of a 1921 atrocity which engulfed the Oklahoma city.
The violence was sparked by white mobs, aided and abetted by authorities, who attacked a group of African American men demonstrating against the arrest of Dick Rowland, a teenage shoeshiner, amid fears he was about to be lynched.
In the ensuing mayhem, up to 300 African Americans were killed and around 5,000 were left homeless as prosperous black neighbourhoods in the oil boom city were razed to the ground. Thousands more people were arrested and detained for several days. A contemporary Oklahoman newspaper report referred to the detention sites as “concentration camps”.
One of the youngest witnesses, Olivia Hooker, was aged just six at the time. She watched as white men carrying burning torches destroyed her family’s home on Tulsa’s Independence Street, even setting fire to the clothes of her favourite doll.
The malice on show stayed with her down the years. “I guess the most shocking thing was seeing people whom you had never done anything to irritate, who just took it upon themselves to destroy your property because they didn’t want you to have those things, and they were teaching you a lesson,” she later explained.
The carnage in Tulsa haunted Oklahomans for decades, yet it also provided the Reparations Coordinating Committee with an unprecedented opportunity. The commission had fastidiously documented the bloodshed, the ignominious role played by state authorities, and the subsequent conspiracy of silence put in place. It recommended substantial restitution to the massacre’s survivors and their descendants.
At the time of its final report in 2001, Maxine Horner, one of the first African American women to serve in the Oklahoma State Senate, expressed optimism for what lay ahead.
“We can be proud of our state for reexamining this blot on our state and our conscience, and for daring to place the light from this report on those dark days,” she wrote. “This has been an epic journey. It can be an epic beginning. There are chapters left to write.”
Miller and his colleagues in the Reparations Coordinating Committee resolved to do just that, realising how the commission’s painstaking investigatory work could serve as a springboard for litigation.
“It provided a set of evidentiary findings, some of which were new, and part of the reason for that is because the state engaged in a determined effort to silence the victims,” he explained.
“It allowed us to prepare a lawsuit which wasn’t crazy, but fitted within the history of classic constitutional civil rights litigation, and would be immediately recognisable to any lawyer as being fundamentally grounded in basic legal doctrine.”
Within two years, he helped launch a legal action for justice, tracking down and interviewing no less than 125 survivors of the massacre, identifying the precise harm caused to each individual, and the perpetrators responsible.
The plaintiffs included Hooker, who was by then a founding member of the Tulsa massacre commission who had overcome the trauma of her formative years to become the first African American woman to enlist in the US Coast Guard. She later achieved prominence as a distinguished psychology professor at Fordham University in New York.
The exhaustive 143-page complaint Miller helped prepare was specked with countless other harrowing testimonies. Another of the named plaintiffs, James Bell, was born prematurely as a result of the shock his mother experienced as she watched a racist mob destroy her home.
The lawsuit, however, was dismissed by federal district and appellate courts, who cited the state’s two-year statute of limitations. In 2005, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, affirming the previous legal rulings that the victims had waited too long, in spite of the fact the state had covered up the atrocity for 84 years, and the Oklahoman justice system was infected with the presence of Ku Klux Klan members who had prevented African Americans from launching legal action.
Miller was disappointed but unbowed. Even in defeat, a crucial victory had been secured. “It was politically important to show that this case was viable,” he says. “The lawsuit helped to radically change the debate around reparations.”
As the years passed, Ogletree helped with Barack Obama’s historic White House campaign, and Miller continued his academic career, giving evidence to the House of Representatives on the transatlantic slave trade, visiting the likes of Oxford University, and even advising a Scottish Government commission on women offenders.
All the while, the arguments in favour of reparations became increasingly legitimised and remained at the forefront of Miller’s mind. Come the publication of a seminal 2014 essay by the author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates, what had only a decade previously been a “minor, insurgent cause” found itself gaining political traction, according to Miller.
“Reparations is, in many ways, the civil rights element of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s different from traditional civil rights campaigns. It’s not a demand for integration. It’s a demand for power, a demand for the ability to determine individually, and as communities, what to do.
“The respect people want is for the way in which historical injustices have and continue to disempower them. That’s why reparations looks backwards, but is in fact also deeply forward looking.”
On the face of it, the febrile climate sparked by the political ascendancy of Donald Trump appears hostile to the reparations campaign.
But Miller believes the elevation of white supremacist voices and viewpoints merely serves to incentivise those seeking restorative justice.
He explains: “What the current administration has been rallying around is a form of white nationalism or white supremacy that is different in kind from anything people have experienced in a generation.
“As fringe white hate groups have become more prominent and dominated the political space, people have realised it’s not enough simply to work through courts that have been taken over by Republicans for legal integration.
“The move has been to try and articulate a theory of resistance to militant white identities that is politically powerful.”
He adds: “Part of what the Trump right is fighting about is determining what American history looks like, who’ll be in that history, who’ll be out of it, and how America is going to look through it.
“A core part of reparations is a demand to rewrite history to include the bad parts and ask that in public discourse, we acknowledge the events that led up to where we are now. If you don’t understand the history, you can’t understand the systemic, structural nature of discrimination in America.”
It was last month that a journey which began in a cramped left-wing bookshop in Glasgow city centre took Miller, now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Liberties.
There he pressed Congress to pass a bill known as HR 40, which would establish a commission to study the question of reparations. It marked the first time the seat of the US government had convened a hearing on reparation in 12 years, with hundreds of people gathering outside the committee room as emotions ran high.
Miller passed by Black Panthers staging a demonstration outside the Rayburn Building in Washington DC. Inside, the 50-strong chamber was full, with the Scot struggling to make his way down the corridor due to the crowds.
It was, he recalls, a “lively,” even “rowdy” atmosphere, with those in the public seats making no secret of their militant tendencies. The entire event, says Miller, felt like the “culmination of a frustration that African American issues are not being taken seriously by the mainstream political establishment”.
During the hearing, where he gave evidence alongside the likes of Coates and Danny Glover, the actor and activist, whose great-grandfather was a slave, Miller focused on his experience in Tulsa as proof that historic wrongs can be righted. The evidence is there, he points out. What is absent is the political will and a legal framework.
“In Tulsa, we showed you can make a detailed account of what happened, and HR 40 would do that on a much larger and broader scale,” he says.
“In my view, given the richness of the historical records in America, there’s no real obstacle to doing the same sort of thing. If you want to make a truly powerful moral case for reparations, the legal aspect is essential.
“It tells the stories of people who were wronged, and there is a power to those stories.”
The fact that so many of the Democrats vying to secure the party’s nomination for the 2020 presidential race are supportive of reparations – in the face of opposition from President Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader – is an added boon.
One of them, Cory Booker, has sponsored a companion bill to HR 40 in the Senate, while the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris advocate addressing the historic evil of slavery and the present-day racial wealth gap brought about by bondage and systemic racism.
“They all recognise that if they want to keep black votes, they have to endorse some form of reparations,” Miller observes.
“In a country where people still fly Confederate flags, it’s a different type of political argument. It’s a demand for respect, recognition and power.”
Time will tell what, if anything, comes from the historic hearing, and whether the House approves HR 40. Miller pragmatically notes that such events “don’t happen often”, and a Senate under the thumb of the Republicans is likely to represent an immovable object, even if reparations becomes an unstoppable force.
No matter, the Scot is prepared to pushing forward the legal, intellectual, and moral arguments in favour of reparations. He now plans to form a new group in California to bring about legislation that will allow the descendants of identifiable victims of slavery and Jim Crow laws to take legal action.
He also believes it is still possible for the injured African American community in Tulsa to secure justice and damages, if the federal government ratifies HR 40.
Sadly, those who lived through the pain of 1921 would not be there to see it. Olivia Hooker, described by president Obama as an “inspiration” was one of the last known survivors. She died last November at the age of 103.
She was, Miller says, an “incredibly nice” woman with an “infectious smile” who spurred on others even when the odds seemed insurmountable.
“Despite her age, she was still a passionate advocate seeking justice for the survivors of the riot.”
As for Miller himself, his work in the field of reparations over the past two decades has been a cathartic ride, allowing the wee boy from the city in Scotland where they named streets after plantation owners to better understand, and prize, his rich ethnic heritage.
“It’s been a humbling and transformative experience,” he says. “Personally, it’s been important, as it’s allowed me to find ways to articulate experiences and values that I find important.
“Wrestling with reparations is a way in part for me to wrestle not just with my West Indian identity, but also my Scottish identity.”
In doing so, Miller is only too aware of how cultural and national belonging can be skewed. He tells me of the time he spent working as a law clerk in Alabama, where he attended a Highland Games. One of the locals taking part in a historical re-enactment, dressed in the full regalia, was keen to engage his Scottish visitor.
“He told me the reason he liked coming to the Highland Games was that the Scots who settled in Alabama had intermarried, and so their blood was pure,” Miller recalls, deadpan.
“That perversion of Scottish culture by groups wanting to assert their racial purity was an eye-opening experience.
“It’s a complicated issue we have, and when a culture like ours is so powerful, it’s something we have to guard jealously, because it can be misused.”
It is for the future to determine whether Miller’s quest to right the injustices of the past is successful. But in the here and now of 2019, a time of division, stark inequality and deepening anger, his voice has never mattered more.