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Salish chief remembers civil rights fight

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PABLO — Forty-three years ago, Vic Charlo was a long way from home. And while he wasn’t on foreign soil, he was fighting a battle that still rages on for many in America: a battle for economic and social justice.

As a Native American activist in 1968, Charlo knew he had to act when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“I knew something had to be done,” said Charlo, now the chief of the Bitterroot Salish. “(But) I didn’t know what to do.”

He found purpose by joining the Poor People’s Campaign, which King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized to address issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the United States.

After traveling to Washington, D.C., Charlo became one of the main campaign organizers and participated in a historic two-week protest in the nation’s capitol in May 1968.

“I was there,” Charlo said before sharing his experiences in a presentation during Salish Kootenai College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations last week.

Charlo opened his talk by singing a few lines of an old spiritual called “Oh Freedom.”

“That’s what I remember — singing those beautiful old songs,” he said.

During his time in D.C., Charlo walked around the ghettoes visiting people, talking, listening and sharing ideas, and sat in many a silent protest that often ended less quietly, he said.

“People were beaten,” Charlo remembered.

For a young man from Arlee, his time spent in the capitol city during the tumultuous period of the civil rights movement was truly eye-opening.

“This was the first time I really saw that we were together,” Charlo said, noting that he was working alongside poor from every race. “We were finally doing something as Indian people … something that meant something to us.”

Although the Poor People’s Campaign was ultimately unsuccessful — an economic bill of rights for the nation’s poor was never passed as King had hoped — the campaign did give underprivileged Americans a way to be heard that they’d never had before, Charlo explained.

“A lot of those things (we wanted) never happened,” he said. “But at least we had a voice, and we were speaking. We have a voice, and we are being heard now even more.”

The story of the Poor People’s Campaign is perhaps best told in “Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty” by Daniel M. Cobb, Charlo said. Several friends he worked with in D.C. are mentioned in the book.

“The Poor People’s Campaign was a campaign for the poor, but it was also a campaign for Native Americans to have their voice,” added Co Carew, SKC’s social work department chair.

Following Charlo’s presentation and a talk by SKC professor Bill Swaney on “The Tribal College Movement: Who We Are and How We Got Here,” Carew and psychology chair Carol Baldwin presented Alice Oxley with SKC’s Social Justice Award for her work in the community, especially in helping to advance women in nontraditional workplaces.

“This really was a surprise,” Oxley said. “I’m humbled and overwhelmed. (SKC) is a terrific place, and I have so much faith that it will always be.”

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