Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Genocide of American Indians

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Why We Can't Wait includes "The Summer of Our Discontent" in which he wrote about moderates who, opposed to segregation, were friends of the Civil Rights Movement. But, King wrote, these moderates were less enthused about the breadth of the movement's call for equality to jobs, housing, education, and social mobility, which he called a Revolution.

Rather than condemn them, he sought to understand their reluctance. He wrote:*
They [the moderates] are evidence that the Revolution is now ripping into roots. For too long the depth of racism in American life as been underestimated. The surgery to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed. As a beginning it is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease. The strands of prejudice towards Negroes are tightly wound around the American character. The prejudice has been nourished by the doctrine of race inferiority. Yet to focus upon the Negro alone as the "inferior race" of American myth is to miss the broader dimensions of the evil.

Here's the next paragraph. King uses the word "genocide."  There is a lot to say about the ideas in this paragraph, but my point in sharing it is the last line, which I am emphasizing with bold italics:

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 over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out 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.

I'm sharing King's words today--the day after the US celebrates Martin Luther King Day--because I would like people to think about what he said in those two paragraphs. I want you to think about it each day as you work with children or teens and the books you use with them.

How many of the books on your shelf exalt the experiences of Native peoples in ways that incorrectly cast us as inferior people? Is it hard for you to look critically at those books because they require you to examine a previously unexamined allegiance to a view of American character that has not looked critically at what King called its evil dimensions?

*I am reading Why We Can't Wait as an ebook and cannot provide page numbers for the excerpts above. Why We Can't Wait was first published by Beacon Press in 1963.