Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King Day, 2013: embracing the dream



George Fletcher, Pendleton  Roundup








In 1968, fresh back from my Peace Corps stint in Turkey, I got involved with the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. I was a bit player, a soldier carrying cautionary words—the Campaign would go on and would not be violent—to suburban churches and returning with food from them to mostly old Black citizens in the city isolated by the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination. The campaign did go on, and my indelible memory is a service in a black church with Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, and one heavy set white woman at the podium and a mostly black audience linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Like most Americans, I had grown up away from conscious racial conflict, unconscious of the role and meaning of race in America. Diversity meant six Lutheran churches in one small Minnesota town, a California high school with largely parallel white and brown student bodies, and four black students and no brown that I remember on my college campus.

In the Peace Corps I lived with Kurds and Turks; In Washington D.C. the neighborhood was mostly black but sprinkled rainbow with small country embassies. Then we came to Oregon and Wallowa County, not knowing how white it was, not knowing a history of exclusion laws that denied blacks the right to live here and “half breed” Indians the right to vote, not knowing the tragic story of the Nez Perce removal from their homeland.

I’ve learned—and as I have learned from history and current events and untangled my own past experiences I have written about it. A dozen years ago I came on a book called The Negro Cowboys; I learned that some 5000 black cowboys were part of the brief post Civil War cattle drives from Texas north. I learned that it was Owen Wister, who wrote The Virginians, who could be charged with scrubbing our cowboy history white. Wister, Teddy Roosevelt, and cohorts and their conscious and unconscious adherence to Manifest Destiny that placed not just whites, but Anglo-American whites at the peak civilization’s pyramid. I wrote about that and about African American rodeo cowboy George Fletcher, who pleased the crowd and not the judges at the Pendleton Roundup. The sheriff tore Fletcher’s hat into pieces and sold them so that his prize money rivaled that of the judges’ white choice.

Fletcher had learned to ride on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where he found less prejudice than he did in town (though it is interesting that it was a white crowd that jeered the judges’ decision). This matched the stories I’d read about Indian baseball players playing on black teams in pre Jackie Robinson professional baseball.

And now, as we put together the Alvin and Betty Josephy Library of Western History and Culture, I find records of a West that is more diverse than textbooks tell. Trappers and fur traders took Indian wives and yes, many of them discarded the Indians when white women arrived or they returned to older homes, many but not all or even most.

David Thompson, the man who mapped most of Western Canada and the Columbia River drainage, on retirement from the fur trade went back to Hudson’s Bay with his Indian wife and raised their 13 children while he surveyed the US–Canada border. Joseph Gale, one of three “first Oregon governors” (it was pre-statehood, and the communities of missionaries, British sympathizers, and Americans with mixed-race families were equally represented in that first government) was married to a daughter of Old Chief Joseph. After a life of fur trading, sailing, gold mining, and commerce in Western Oregon and California—and pressures to leave his Indian wife, Eliza, they came together to Eagle Valley in Eastern Oregon.

Gale had a Chinese helper on his Baker County farm, and there is now a museum where the China Doctor of John Day lived. Yes, there was a Chinese Massacre, but white and Chinese Americans are working now to put that historic record straight. And in the library I have a picture of a group of Snake River cowboys in sheepskin chaps, one of them dark with long Indian braids dropping from his cowboy hat.

I’ve come to think that “white” is a mistaken picture of our own history, more a mistaken dream that men imagined meant smart and good and pure. That slavery, Jim Crow, counting citizens by half, Japanese internment camps and Manifest Destiny were sidetracks—often brutal and mean—on a national journey that, if it is to continue for another three hundred years, must purge itself of this old dream and embrace the one of Martin Luther King.

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