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The March on Washington, 50 Years Later: A Dream Deferred for Natives

In my previous column leading up to August 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I sketched a prosperous nation built with stolen black labor on stolen Indian lands. I talked about how, in the violent resistance to the colonists, the Indians were much more effective than the black slaves.

After World War II, a new phase of resistance came forward, and when the struggle became nonviolent, Indians lost their claim to greatest effectiveness. Even though violence as a political tactic had long faded, WWII seemed to make all exploited non-whites more “uppity.”

Historically black colleges filled up in no time, and blacks demanded entry to other state institutions to use their GI Bill entitlements. Denied, they filed lawsuits that forced integration of graduate schools, undergraduate schools, and finally K-12.

Indian GIs returning from the war headed up the litigation that opened up the right to vote for Indians living on the reservations in New Mexico and Arizona and they, too, moved to use their GI Bill rights.

Hispanic veterans in 1948 organized the American GI Forum, under the motto “Education Is Our Freedom and Freedom Should Be Everybody’s Business.” This was a time when Mexican-Americans were still segregated and denied the equal treatment promised by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in the southwestern US, and most of the white people doing the segregating could not tell Hispanics from Indians.

Asians, too, had been subject to race-based discrimination, and it was the GI Bill that bought the education one of the best friends American Indians ever had in Congress, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Medal of Honor veteran of the storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the US Army.

Everybody was moving, although, ironically, the oppressed minorities by and large moved separately on what became a common freedom agenda:

*Equal access to education

*Equal access to the ballot box

*Equal access to public accommodations

*Jobs, jobs, jobs, and at a decent wage

Indians were on board with this agenda and, to the extent the mainstream civil rights movement succeeded, Indians benefitted when they lived in the dominant culture or were forced to visit reservation border towns.

They had, however, a different set of demands of the US government, demands for segregation rather than integration—self-government on their own lands. They also had a different basis for those demands, in some cases treaties and in other cases respect for cultures that far antedated the US Constitution, to which Indians were not parties.

Other minorities, with exceptions like Sen. Inouye and African-American activist and comedian Dick Gregory, did not understand Indian demands. Some Indians even came to resent the successes of the mainstream civil rights movement, in spite of insightful explanations of the differing goals by Vine Deloria, Jr. and others. Even within the African-American movement, all was not sweetness and light.

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At the March on Washington, the distinguished literary lion James Baldwin was not allowed to speak, as he was expected to be too inflammatory. The youngest speaker, original Freedom Rider (now Congressman) John Lewis, had his speech toned down substantially by the leadership by cutting, among other lines, “...we will march though the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground---nonviolently.” Malcolm X called the demonstration “a circus” and objected to allowing whites to participate.

The role of women was limited to entertaining. Marian Anderson, Mary Travers, Odetta and Joan Baez sang in front of the largest civil rights demonstration in history, and it was the great gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who contributed to the pivotal moment we remember, when we choose to remember, that day. Her majestic voice rings out, as MLK pauses, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

At that point, the Baptist preacher departs from the prepared remarks of his call-and-response sermon and improvises on lines he had used many times before. Those lines now, in the history books, title the speech: “I have a dream.”

We are peoples of oral tradition. We understand and honor great oratory.

The FBI also understood great oratory. Two days after the speech, the head of COINTELPRO, William Sullivan, wrote for the record of King’s “powerful demagogic speech,” and that program was turned against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and also against King as an individual. The American Indian Movement would later join the SCLC as a target of COINTELPRO when several charismatic leaders attracted national attention.

The man said he had a dream. He didn’t say it would be easy, and he knew it could cost him his life, which it did. Fifty years off from the Great March on Washington, the struggle is far from over, and nobody is farther behind on the freedom agenda than American Indians.

Last year’s election was held in the face of state government voter suppression laws aimed at Indians, blacks, and Hispanics not seen since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Supreme Court has since pulled the teeth of that law, as well as the Indian Child Welfare Act, two civil rights laws that have been perhaps too successful for the comfort of some.

Voting rights remain necessary to addressing the rest of the agenda, education and jobs and, in the case of Indians, tribal sovereignty. On July 30, there was a meeting at the White House to address the attacks on voting rights, and it’s interesting to note who attended besides elected officials:

  • Barbara Arnwine, President & Executive Director, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • Roslyn Brock, Chairman, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Board of Directors
  • John Echohawk, Executive Director, Native American Rights Fund
  • Margaret Fung, Executive Director, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
  • Wade Henderson, President and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
  • Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League
  • Mee Moua, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
  • Janet Murguia, President & CEO, National Council of La Raza
  • Laura Murphy, Director, American Civil Liberties Union
  • Thomas Saenz, President & General Counsel, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Al Sharpton, President & Founder, National Action Network

It’s a measure of the change since 1963 that this meeting happened at the White House.

It’s a measure of the lack of change since 1963 that this meeting was necessary.

I hope it’s a measure of what we’ve learned in the past 50 years that, at least on the voting rights issue, we stand together. I hope we understand now that if white people who believe in the promise of freedom stand together with African-Americans, Indians, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, then we are no longer a minority.

Leaving aside the new and fantastical way Indians are counted for the Census, we remain less than 1 percent of the population of a land where we used to be 100 percent. Therefore, we must do politics with allies or we will not be heard.

We, too, have a dream.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.