Sen. Webber: ‘Inequities are glaring’

MLK Day follows fraught events in U.S.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Susan Webber taught Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in her American government class at Blackfeet Community College.

“I always go back to his speech,” said Webber, a state senator from Browning. “And that was one of the great speeches of all time. It not only spoke to the African American community, but it spoke to all of us minorities.”

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, is a Blackfeet Nation member who has taught at Blackfeet Community College. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

The Democrat said students first grew quiet hearing the words of the civil rights leader, and she wondered if the topic went over their heads. After a while, she figured out they were amazed and moved by the famous words of the minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient assassinated in 1968.

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but many events of the past year did not reflect the values the African American activist espoused. In 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King said even 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro is still not free,” and is still crippled by discrimination, “unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” and signs stating, “for whites only.”

Last year, police fatally shot medical worker Breonna Taylor, a black woman in Kentucky, and a white officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd until the black man suffocated to death. Just a couple of weeks ago, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a deadly insurrection after President Donald Trump lost re-election and urged supporters to “fight like hell.” National news outlets reported FBI evidence showed the majority of the rioters to be suspected white supremacists.

Tobin Shearer Miller, a history professor at the University of Montana and head of African American Studies, said the rampage at the Capitol is not a unique event. Rather, he said the violent raid was in keeping with the long history of white supremacy in the U.S.

Tobin Miller Shearer, history professor, directs African American Studies at the University of Montana. (Provided by the University of Montana)

“Everything that King spoke for, the vision he articulated, and the actions he took, are anathema to what happened in Washington, D.C., from the display of the Confederate flag to the unapologetic support of white supremacy.”

Additionally, he said the people involved aren’t fringe members of society, and he forecast more discord in the future: “We have to take what happened there as an indication of more things to come, not an aberration, particularly because those who participated weren’t just a fringe element; they were at the center of society both in terms of their status, their economic position, and the jobs they held.”

Webber, who is Blackfeet, said she felt heartbroken and disgusted watching the events unfold at the Capitol on television. She and her husband discussed King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and she said it presents aspirations for all minorities but a long road for the country and Montana.

“Inequities are glaring,” Webber said. “We’re getting there. But we haven’t gotten there. We haven’t gotten to realize Martin Luther King’s dream.”

The coronavirus pandemic shows one example. Native Americans account for less than 7 percent of the population in Montana, but a report from the state in October noted Native Americans accounted for 19 percent of COVID-19 cases and 32 percent of associated deaths.

The legislature is in session, and Webber said one bill in particular troubles her when it comes to minorities. House Bill 102 would open up places where people can carry firearms, and Webber said guns on campus put Native Americans in a tough position.

“Who is going to get shot first? Us brown people,” Webber said. “Might as well dust off ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’ (sign). That sounds harsh, but that’s reality for an Indian.”

The deaths of Taylor and Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world, but Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy said society needs to pay more attention to Native American lives. This year, Native Americans account for 8 percent of the Montana Legislature, according to data self-reported to the Legislative Services Division; that compares to Native Americans making up 6.7 percent of the overall Montana population in 2018.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy is a Democrat from Box Elder. (Provided by the Montana Legislature.)

“The Black Matters movement is good, but what about the Red (Lives) Matter?” Windy Boy said.

King was a good organizer and deserves accolades, as does the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader from Georgia, Windy Boy said. At the same time, the Box Elder Democrat said he wished Native American activists were recognized in the mainstream as well.

“There’s a lot of people in Indian Country who have done great wonders, but you never recognize those,” Windy Boy said.

One of the most familiar lines in King’s speech is this one: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Webber said she and many of her contemporaries believed the country had been moving in the right direction up until the last four years. Regardless, she still shares the same dream as King.

“We believe in his words,” Webber said. “I still do. I still think we should look towards unity, look towards not the color of your skin, but the content of your soul, content of your character.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”