TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Amid a surging omicron variant, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, many schools in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma are not planning extravagant celebrations, but in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, Black leaders are making suggestions on ways to honor the civil rights leader.
Those who are interested in inquiring about or joining Northeastern State University’s Department of Student Engagement for a day of service may sign up by sending an email to email@example.com. Volunteers can be from anywhere in the area. As of Thursday, Jan. 13, students were planning to volunteer by cleaning up campus grounds, the community garden, organizing Rowdy’s Resource Room, and making cards for local nursing homes at the University Center, but those plans may change.
Black leaders, including those on campus, say the best way for locals to celebrate the legacy of the civil rights champion and the movement he led is by reading books, watching movies, and talking about the importance of the movement with family and friends, whether in person or by some other means.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was about fighting against poverty, discrimination, and violence,” said Yolette Ross, Cherokee County Democratic Party chair. “We still have a commitment to overcome these challenges. We can’t shirk away from the work of justice; we need to get out there and fight against racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and giving back to the community.”
Ross was 11 years old when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. While she was too young to fully understand the importance of the Civil Rights movement at that time, she understood that his actions had a direct impact on her life as a Black girl living in a small town in New Jersey.
“When the news broadcast came on, I remember my mom sitting at the kitchen table crying. I wondered why. She was physically broken up about it. As I’ve grown older and learned about the history of America, I understood what King stood up for,” said Ross.
Her mother, Lois, grew up in Louisiana and her father, Don, in Tahlequah, and both faced segregation and discrimination. While she didn’t suffer the same kind of racism her parents did as Black Americans before Civil Rights, she said she has experienced subtler forms of it.
“The town I lived in was a small town. They used to call that the Klan Capital of Salem County. They had a blinking light at the center of town. Every year, the elders hung a black dummy with a noose around its neck,” she said.
At some point, a schoolmate of hers tore the dummy down when she was in sixth grade, and he was beaten for it. At the time, Black people didn’t live in the center of town, as the county was redlined.
She recommends that to honor King’s legacy, locals can read books on the importance of Civil Rights, become informed, and perform service in the community.
“We all come from the same source. We should all realize we need to be united in our humanity and build our communities from that base, and not from color or religious foundation. Treat someone like you want to be treated,” said Ross.
Throughout his life, King fought for the basic right to vote for all people, and subsequently, the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Amid gerrymandering and the passage of a number of laws intended to suppress the voting rights of nonwhite voters, many Black people are still fighting for that same right.
“We are still fighting for the basic right to vote. It’s funny, but sad,” said Ross.
Tahlequah resident and independent consultant Betty Brown believes it is important to recognize King for his work on civil rights. She is a member of Antioch Baptist Church, a predominantly Black congregation in Tahlequah.
“I lived through the times of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve always respected Dr. King for his determination to keep fighting for our rights. I’m very happy the government set a day aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It’s more than a day off work to me,” said Brown.