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Montana Viewpoint: A milepost on the road to justice

Sen. Eleanor Vaughn, D-Libby, calls the joint meeting of the state House and Senate Administration Committees to order on January 21, 1991, at 10 a.m. Sen. Harry Fritz rises to introduce a measure to establish a paid state holiday commemorating the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy for the third consecutive legislative session.

It’s been a national holiday since 1986, and Montana is one of just two states that hasn’t created its own—the other being Arizona.

Montana Republican Attorney General Marc Racicot (a member of the Libby Loggers 1966 Class A state basketball championship team) supports SB 78, which will be passed by the Democratically-controlled Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by Republican Governor Stan Stevens on February 8, 1991.

This was “…not simply a day celebrating Dr. King, but his principles and the ideas of those who’ve championed civil rights across the globe,” according to Stevens, as stated in the New York Times.

Several Native Americans are among the bill’s numerous supporters who queue up behind the microphone to speak. Rep. Bob Gervais (“It’s pronounced Jarvis”), a Browning Democrat, is the fourth line. Floyd Bob is how I know him. He’s Blackfeet, and he resembles the buffalo that previously provided food for his people. His head is large, with a broad face and short, curling black hair, and is proportional to his chest and shoulders, both muscular and broad.

Then, like the buffalo, the tapers his bulk to an almost delicate rear end and thin but powerful legs. The minutes from that time aren’t exact. Still, they do record his saying that “the Martin Luther King civil rights campaign provided Indians the strength to achieve the 1968 Indians Civil Rights Movement, a statute that guarantees civil rights protection inside their communities.” Floyd Bob has a lot of the Trickster—the coyote—in him, and when he talks, he has fantastic, sneaky humor, but not today. It’s a severe day today.

“The Lincoln County Task Force on Human Rights was created this past summer, following a year of racist and separatist activities in our town by the Montana Separatist Alliance, which is located in Libby,” Representative Paula Darko, D, Libby, is quoted as stating. Her and the task force’s support stems from the fact that they consider the holiday as a powerful expression of their profound emotions for equality and justice and a forceful message against those who would fight against those principles.”

Bill Wassmuth, Executive Director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which has five branches in Montana, is on the other end of the telephone. Bill is a former Catholic priest from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who spoke out against the racist ideologies of the Aryan Nations, a white separatist organization based in neighboring Hayden, Idaho.

The Aryan Nations enlisted inmates spending time in jail for violent crimes to bolster their numbers, and they funded their cause by robbing banks. Wassmuth barely avoided being murdered in his own house when a pipe bomb put by an organization member detonated in his kitchen. In 1988, he and a Jewish realtor from Coeur d’Alene addressed a gathering of 350-400 Sanders County residents gathered in the Noxon, Montana gym to successfully halt the Aryan Nations’ planned migration from Hayden to Noxon.

These are also the themes of the subsequent testimonies: to honor the man, King, to honor his legacy of nonviolent action to defend the rights of the defenseless, and to send a strong, clear, and proud message that the people of Montana do not condone and will not provide fertile ground for the racist and white supremacist beliefs of those groups who have expressed an interest in moving to Montana and who see Montana as “the last white place.”

In 1991, it was critical to proclaim the equality and dignity of all peoples.

It’s much more crucial today.

Jim Elliott was a member of the Montana Legislature for sixteen years, serving as a state representative and state senator. In Trout Creek, he lives on his ranch.