As I sat on at the podium in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, I looked at the great African American women seated next to me. It was Black History Month and seated next to me were Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King.
In the audience was my lifelong friend, a Nez Perce Indian from Idaho, Ron Holt, a journalist who cut his teeth when Indian journalism was just beginning to take its place on the American landscape. Ron called me last week and reminded me of this very special day.
The historic struggles of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. are well-known to all Americans today. They not only faced extreme adversity but also the possibility of sudden death.
As I sat there I remembered the few days I spent in Bessemer, Ala., in the winter of 1954. I was in the U. S. Navy and was home on leave when one of my closest friends, a shipmate of mine, asked me to spend a couple of days with his family in Bessemer. I knew about segregation from my childhood in South Dakota, and this was not the first time I saw it in action. First of all there were the bathrooms that were marked "whites only" and "colored only." The same signs could be seen at the public drinking fountains.
When I went to the Western Union Office to get a money order from my mother I got in line behind several African Americans. The clerk looked up and saw me and said, "What are doing standing behind all of these Niggers: get up here now." That's the way it was in Alabama in 1954.
It brought to mind my early days in Rapid City, S.D. When the city, state and county laid claim to the lands that used to be the Rapid City Indian School, although a portion of that land was to be used for indigent Indians, the city would have none of it. Instead the land was purchased and the Indians were given a piece of land in North Rapid City with no water, electricity or indoor toilets in exchange. Recalling this event in 1972 Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett said, "This was the first time I ever saw racial segregation."
For one semester I attended Roosevelt School on E. North Street in Rapid City. The school is now a huge pawn shop. My friend Edgar Lone Hill and I decided to walk one of the girls in our fourth grade class home. When we got to her house her mother came out and screamed, "You dirty little Indians stay away from my daughter." Since we were with her in Miss Owens' classroom, this was hard to do, but we tried. We were never friends with her again.
Native Americans were forbidden by law to enter any establishment where alcohol was served. In fact, Indians could be barred from any establishment in Rapid City at the behest of the business owner. Kind of reminds me of the law the Arizona lawmakers tried to initiate last week.
I learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance before "one nation under God" was added in 1954. As I grew up the words "with liberty and justice for all" sort of stuck in my craw because I knew them to just be words with no connection to reality. In the Deep South and in the border town communities surrounding Indian reservations, these words did not ring true. In those days if an Indian went to a movie in the border town of Rushville, Nebraska, a small community south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the balcony was "For Indians Only." We were not allowed to mingle with the white folks.
When I was in college, as part of a political science project, my class attended the Monday morning courthouse session in Washoe County, Nev., and I watched in anger as about one dozen Paiute Indians were sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating the curfew that said all Indians had to be off of the streets by midnight. They were tried as one person and sentenced en masse. So much for "liberty and justice for all."
These thoughts ran through my mind on the podium that day and my admiration for Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King grew because I knew that some of the things they accomplished in human rights eventually came back to bring justice and liberty to the Indian reservations of America. They broke down racial barriers for all races.
The voting rights they espoused have been damaged by this Supreme Court and the impact of that ruling will come back to haunt the people of the Indian reservations also because the voting rights of Native Americans have long been stifled by state governments. And so the fight goes on and I am proud to have known these great African American women who stood up for "liberty and justice for all."
Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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