The Tulsa Race Massacre, Transitional Justice, and the Ongoing Fight Against Impunity

In May 2021, the nation somberly marked the centennial of a particularly horrific moment in a long history of racial injustice: the Tulsa Race Massacre. One hundred years ago, on the night of May 31, 1921, a racist mob of white residents rampaged through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and burned down the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. As many as 300 people were killed and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed. The neighborhood, known as Black Wall Street because it had been a thriving hub of Black business and entrepreneurship, never fully recovered.

For decades, the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre received little attention beyond the devastated community of Greenwood. In 1997, the state legislature in Oklahoma created a formal Commission to study the riots. Their report not only documented the tragedy but also found that Tulsa city officials and police were complicit in the violence, both by failing to intervene to protect Black residents, and in some cases, by actively supporting the perpetrators. The Commission strongly recommended reparations for survivors of the Massacre and their descendants, but such compensation never materialized.

In the fall of 2020, Stanford Law School’s policy practicum Human Rights and International Justice took up work looking at the issue of transitional justice across several countries. Transitional justice is a holistic approach for addressing past human rights abuses that combine criminal prosecutions for perpetrators, truth-seeking, reparations, and reforms of laws and legal institutions. Although the policy practicum was focused on international justice issues, we were also deeply aware of the painful and unresolved issues of racial injustice in our country. We believed that many of the principles of international human rights and transitional justice are equally as relevant here at home as they are in other countries. The Tulsa Race Massacre and the ensuing one hundred years of impunity for its perpetrators show just how much work remains to be done in providing justice for terrible crimes and human rights abuses throughout our national history.

The Black residents of Tulsa and their descendants have fought tirelessly for some semblance of justice and accountability for the Tulsa Race Massacre. A Centennial Commission hosted a series of events in 2021 to commemorate the Massacre and fought to ensure that the history of the Massacre be included in the curriculum for state schools. However, more work remains. The City of Tulsa has continued to refuse to accept legal responsibility for its involvement in the tragedy. While several lawsuits seeking reparations have moved forward, they have not yet succeeded in providing relief to survivors and their descendants. The annual Tulsa Equality Indicators continue to show substantial inequality in the city, in particular on issues of law enforcement and access to justice. And in 2020, a Tulsa police officer made a painfully racist comment that police are shooting Black people “less than we probably ought to be.”

Kevan Christensen (JD/MPA ‘21)

To better understand how we might support the ongoing fight for justice in Tulsa, the policy practicum worked with the Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa. Rev. Dr. Turner has been among the many voices calling for reparations for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Our goal was to find possible ways to link the efforts in Tulsa to the growing global movement for transitional justice. The team of students included Kevan Christensen (JD/MPA ‘21), Jules Ross (JD ‘22), and Michael Rover (JD ‘22), and was led by Professor Beth Van Schaack.

Our research focused on potential ways to involve human rights bodies at the United Nations, which monitor countries’ compliance with international human rights obligations. The United States has ratified several treaties that create clear obligations to uphold human rights and prevent racial discrimination, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). However, our research led us to conclude that through the continued lack of accountability for the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the broader failure to address racial injustice in the country, the United States is failing to live up to its obligations under these international agreements. Advocates in the United States must continue to push our government to do more to uphold our commitments.

At the end of 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a call for submissions for a report it’s preparing on systemic racism against Africans and people of African descent. The report was motivated in part by the murder of George Floyd and will include a global review of human rights violations by law enforcement officials. Submissions to such reports provide a critical opportunity for civil society organizations, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders to bring issues to the attention of the international community. They also provide a way to ensure that key voices are heard, especially when national governments may neglect to raise certain issues. Our team felt strongly that the long-neglected history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the subsequent struggle for accountability and justice, should be represented in the report.

The policy practicum team supported Rev. Dr. Turner in preparing a submission for the report. Rev. Dr. Turner’s submission describes the history of the Massacre, the ongoing fight for accountability, and the problem of continued impunity for the perpetrators. It also includes a series of recommendations focused on applying the principles of transitional justice. Of particular importance was the suggestion to focus on both individual and collective reparations. While reparations in the form of payments to individual victims are crucial, transitional justice calls for broader action as well. Rev. Dr. Turner highlighted the importance of additional initiatives, such as restoring the economic status of the Black community in Tulsa as a whole, returning expropriated land to Black owners, ending discrimination in the criminal justice system, and improving schools and educational access for Black Tulsans.

Rev. Dr. Turner’s submission was accepted by the OHCHR and has been made available on its website. Several country governments, intergovernmental organizations, and over eighty non-governmental organizations provided submissions as well, further highlighting the value of soliciting input from stakeholders all around the world. Our hope is that this submission will inform the final report, highlight the value of transitional justice approaches, and bring greater global attention to the fight for justice and reparations in Tulsa.

Rooting out systemic racism in the United States and around the world poses an essential but monumental challenge. Much of the work will need to occur within communities at the local level. But international human rights bodies provide an additional tool to hold our own government accountable, raise awareness of ongoing and unresolved injustices like the Tulsa Race Massacre, and share ideas and lessons learned from around the globe.