As Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day Monday, across America, many tribal, federal, state and local governments will be closed to honor the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday should be more than a day off work or school. It should be a day of reflection.
It should be a day to reflect on justice and equality in the United States. Working for justice and equality for all Americans helped define Dr. King’s pilgrimage during America’s Civil Rights Movement. Even though he was faced with a constant barrage of death threats, harassment by the FBI and numerous arrests, Dr. King still worked hard to bring justice and equality for all Americans.
While Dr. King happened to be an African American, his leadership and dream transcended racial boundaries. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American leader.
The effects of his great work impacted the lives of all Americans.
For instance, the passage of the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964 benefited American Indians and Latinos, as well as African Americans. We can now go places we could not go prior to 1964. We can now stay in motels we could not stay in prior to 1964.
Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, American Indians were not allowed in many establishments simply because we were Indians. Many establishments prominently displayed signs that read:
“No Indians or Dogs Allowed”
in various parts of this country. There is a major difference between an Indian and a dog, I may add.
One Ottawa elder recalls, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became a federal law, business proprietors, who owned restaurants, motels and shops, in the upper portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula held a meeting to discuss “what they were going to do now that they had to serve Indians.”
In his effort to bring justice and equality for all Americans, Dr. King noted the gross mistreatment of American Indians in the United States, as he reflected on the origins of racism in America in his 1963 book, “Why We Can’t Wait:”
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”
Sadly, so much of what Dr. King wrote over 50 years ago still rings true even today for American Indians.
Personally, I am glad Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day. It makes me reflect on what was and what still needs to be done as we work towards justice and equality in America. We know there is still much work to be done.
Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published in Native News Online for Martin Luther King Day on January 19, 2014.
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