It is 10 a.m. on January 21, 1991, when Sen. Eleanor Vaughn, D-Libby, calls the joint meeting of the state House and Senate Administration Committees to order. Sen. Harry Fritz rises to present – for the third consecutive legislative session – a bill to create a paid state holiday honoring the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
It has been a national holiday since 1986, and Montana is one of the two remaining states that has yet to create one of its own—Arizona is the other.
SB 78, the bill creating the holiday, is supported by Montana Republican Attorney General Marc Racicot (a member of the Libby Loggers 1966 Class A state basketball championship team), and will be passed by the Democratically controlled Senate and House, and signed into law by Republican Gov. Stan Stevens on February 8, 1991.
This was, said Stevens as quoted in the New York Times, “…not only a day honoring Dr. King, but his ideas and the ideas of others who’ve championed civil rights throughout the world.”
The many proponents of the bill line up behind the microphone to testify, several of them are Native Americans. Representative Bob Gervais (“It’s pronounced Jarvis”), a Democrat from Browning, is fourth in line. I know him as Floyd Bob. He is Blackfeet and he looks like the buffalo that once sustained his people. His head is massive, a broad face topped with short, somewhat curly, black hair, and is proportionate to his chest and shoulders, strong and also broad.
Then, like the buffalo, his body tapers to an almost dainty rear end and slender but sturdy legs. The minutes in those days were not verbatim, but they record that he says that “the Martin Luther King civil rights movement gave Indians the momentum to accomplish the 1968 Indians Civil Rights Movement, a law which provides civil rights protection within their own communities.” Floyd Bob has a lot of the Trickster—the coyote—in him and has a wonderful, sly humor when he speaks, but not today. Today is serious.
Then comes Representative Paula Darko, D, Libby who is reported as saying, “the Lincoln County Task Force on Human Rights was organized this past summer, after a year of racist and separatist activity in our community by the Montana Separatist Alliance which is headquartered in Libby. Her support and that of the task force, is because they see this holiday as a strong statement of their deep feelings for equality and justice and against those who would work against those values.”
Down the line is Bill Wassmuth, Executive Director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment with five chapters in Montana. Bill is a former Catholic Priest from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho who publicly opposed the racist beliefs of the white separatist group called the Aryan Nations in nearby Hayden, Idaho.
The Aryan Nations recruited felons serving prison sentences for violent crimes to build their ranks and supported their movement financially by robbing banks. Wassmuth narrowly escaped being killed at his home when a pipe bomb suspected to have been planted by a member of that group exploded in his kitchen. It was he and a Jewish realtor from Coeur d’Alene who in 1988 addressed a crowd of Sanders County citizens estimated at between 350-400 assembled in the Noxon, Montana gym to successfully prevent the planned move of the Aryan Nations from Hayden to Noxon.
And these are also the themes of the testimony of those who follow; to honor the man, King, to honor his legacy of non-violent action to defend the rights of the defenseless, and to send a message, strong and clear and proud, that the people of the state of Montana do not condone and will not provide fertile ground for the racist and white supremacist beliefs of those groups who have announced a desire to move to Montana and who see Montana as “the last white place”.
The need to assert the equality and dignity of all peoples was that important in 1991.
It is even more important now.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.