‘I have a dream for all God’s children,’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Roy Cook Editor

Those who still think that Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of social justice and equality for all people applies only to members of King’s own race must never have heard of John Echohawk.

Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee Tribe and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, has been a leading legal and political advocate for the sovereign rights of Native American tribes for more than three decades - thanks to the influence of King.

“This principle of tribal sovereignty was one that captured our imaginations, and we saw great potential in enforcing this legal right in the political climate of the 1960s,” Echohawk said. “It was a controversial avenue to pursue, because the federal government’s policy relating to Indian tribes at that time was one of terminating our tribes, doing away with our relationship with the federal government and placing us under state jurisdiction—all against our will without our consent.

“Inspired by Dr. King, who was advancing the civil rights agenda of equality under the laws of this country, we thought that we could also use the laws to advance our Indianship, to live as tribes in our territories governed by our own laws under the principles of tribal sovereignty that had been with us ever since 1831. We believed that we could fight for a policy of self-determination that was consistent with U.S. law and that we could govern our own affairs, define our own ways and continue to survive in this society.”

In 1970, Echohawk and others did just that by organizing the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which was modeled after the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. For the past 30 years, NARF has served as a political advocate and legal defender of Native American tribal nations in cases pertaining to tribal sovereignty and treaty enforcement; land, water and fishing rights; religious and cultural freedoms; and, among others, issues of taxation, gaming and Indian trust monies.

MLK legacy review:

“Martin Luther King was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank.” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html

Harris Wofford was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South in the late 1950s and became a friend and unofficial advisor to Martin Luther King. In 1957 Wofford arranged for King to visit India. According to Coretta King, after this trip her husband "constantly pondered how to apply Gandhian principles in America." In 1957 King joined with the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organization was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

There had been a long tradition of nonviolent resistance to racism in the United States. Frederick Douglass had advocated these methods during the fight against slavery. Other black leaders such as Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had successfully used nonviolence against racism in the 1940s. The importance of the SCLC was that now the black church, a powerful organization in the South, was to become fully involved in the struggle for civil rights.

In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. And inspiring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a manifesto of the Negro revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Negroes as voters.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkingML.htm

“He directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, "l Have a Dream":

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough place will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning.

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing:
Land where my father’s died,
Land of the pilgrim's pride,
from every mountainside
Let freedom ring.


And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.”

At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.

Earlier in the 20th century messages of truth could only be conveyed in a non-confrontational comic-trickster context.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s essay on High John de Conquer, a mythic black figure who pre-dates John Henry and Stagger (or Stack-o) Lee. High John’s weapons are laughter and song. And speed. High John is fast, as Hurston writes in Zora Neale Hurston’s The Sanctified Church:

High John de Conquer came to be a man, and a mighty man at that. But he was not a natural man in the beginning. First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. His footsteps sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing-drum. Black people had an irresistible impulse to laugh. High John the Conquer was a man in full, and had come to live and work on the plantations, and all of the slave folks knew him in the flesh.

The sign of his man was a laugh, and his singing-symbol was a drum. No parading drum-shout like soldiers out for show. It did not call to the feet of those who were fixed to hear it. It was an inside thing to live by. It was sure to be heard when and where the work was hardest, and the lot the most cruel. It helped the slaves endure. They knew that something better was coming. So they laughed in the face of things and sang, “I’m so glad! Trouble don’t last always.” And the white people who heard them were struck dumb that they could laugh. In an outside way, this was Old Massa’s fun, so what was Old Cuffy laughing for?

Old Massa couldn’t know, of course, but High John de Conquer was there walking his plantation like a natural man.

Maybe he was in Texas when the lash fell on a slave in Alabama, but before the blood was dry on the back, he was there. A faint pulsing of a drum like a goat-skin stretched over a heart, that came nearer and closer, then sombody in the saddened quarters would feel like laughing and say, “Now High John de Conquer, Old Mass couldn’t get the best of him. That old John was a case!” Then everybody began to smile.

It’s about story — a story that came from Africa that sustained the slaves and their descendents for generations. It’s about song — songs that came from Africa and enveloped the best of the Christian faith and withstood the dogs and water cannons in Birmingham. It’s about laughter — laughter that came from Africa and enabled blacks in the Jim Crow south to laugh secretly at those who spent most of their waking moments trying to figure out ways to crush High John and the millions like him.

It is no accident, Hurston writes, High John de Conquer has evaded the ears of white people. They were not supposed to know. You can’t know what folks won’t tell you.

And so it is with what this music provided that enabled them to challenge the most powerful nation on the planet armed only with love and justice. It’s all there in those on spirituals and those unstoppable gospel songs, the stories, the laughter and the music.

Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century African-American literature. Hurston was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and has influenced such writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara.

Finally, Native Americans have much to acknowledge regarding the ability to live as tribes in our territories governed by our own laws under the principles of tribal sovereignty. We honor the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. Nation hood is a mighty power and freedom for many Native Americans.

Sources: http://www.sol.com.au/kor/15_01.htm