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Panel urges Oklahoma to pay reparations for 1921 race riot

OKLAHOMA CITY — A state commission has recommended that reparations be paid for the 1921 Tulsa race riot, one of the worst racial clashes in U.S. history.

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission presented its final report Wednesday to Gov. Frank Keating and state lawmakers, saying reparations "will stand as symbols that fully acknowledge and finally discharge a collective responsibility."

As many as 300 people may have been killed during the riots that began when a white lynch mob exchanged gunfire with a group of blacks who sought to protect a shoeshiner accused of assaulting a white woman.

By the next day, the entire black business district known as Greenwood had been torched. Black churches, businesses and more than 1,200 homes lay in ruins. Blacks fled or were herded into detainment centers. The commission said the exact death toll will never be known.

The report was delivered during a news conference attended by three riot survivors.

"I remember quite a bit. Gunshots, fire, smoke. People running, crying, praying," said Joe Burns, a commission member who was 5 years old when the riot broke out.

"I got shot at," said Otis Clark, 98. "I didn't feel too scared, just trying to get out of the way."

The report did not specify reparations but upheld last year's preliminary report, which recommended reparations ranging from a memorial and scholarships to direct payments to survivors and their descendants.

Legislative leaders said it is premature to consider reparations but said they look forward to debating the idea.

"Some compensation may be in order," House Speaker Larry Adair said. "I think we need to be very cautious on making any commitments on how money is spent in the state of Oklahoma."

Keating expressed shame and embarrassment that the riots occurred but said he does not support reparations to descendants of survivors.

"If you can show liability on the part of the state, city and county, I do support reparations to survivors," Keating said.

The commission, which has no legal authority to assign culpability or assess damages, placed blame not only on those who pulled the triggers, but also those who stood by silently.

The government is to blame for failing to prevent the violence or punishing those responsible, the commission said. Public officials added to the violence by deputizing white participants and providing them with firearms and ammunition.

"Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by the government at any level, municipal, county, state or federal," the report said.

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