The Shared Histories of Black and Native Americans

A few months before he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” King’s words apply to the interconnected histories of Black and Native Americans, which have long resonated at the monument dedicated to freedom, unity, and invisible courage. Yet the Lincoln Memorial, the site of much activism, overshadows Abraham Lincoln’s legacy of dispossession.

Persistent and courageous protest by African and Native Americans has long countered their widespread dispossession across the United States. In January 2019, Omaha, Nebraska activist Nathan Phillips prayed and chanted on the steps of the memorial—just as Black Civil Rights activists did in 1963—during the Indigenous Peoples’ March. As he sang and prayed, Catholic teenagers ridiculed him. Yet Phillips, a Marine Corps reservist, expertly employed de-escalation tactics, making “structural violence visible.” Watching the scene unfold in January 2019 at the Lincoln Memorial, I thought of how invisible and disruptive nonviolence truly is. In the summer of 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King had many allies in nonviolence — including my mother, Louise.

My whole family belong to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi with approximately 55,000 people. Beginning in the 1880s, we experienced segregation in public schools and later, some public facilities. Lumbees have never lived on a reservation, but our community is knit tightly through family ties and shared experience. Lumbees shared the experience of segregation and religious traditions, though we worship (then and now) largely in our own churches. Many Lumbee farm families, like my mother’s, did not associate with whites or Blacks unless they went to the tobacco market, the movie theater, or the county courthouse, where they confronted restrooms and water fountains labeled “white,” “colored,” and “Indian.”

Louise attended the all-Indian Pembroke State University (now UNC-Pembroke) and traveled to the March on Washington as part of an interracial group of Black, white, and Indian college students. Before the march, she had attended a conference for Baptist student leaders; her roommate at the conference was a Black woman named Jacqueline, a student at the historically Black North Carolina Central University. Jacqueline, Louise said, was the first Black person she “really knew.” My mother was 20 years old.

The students arrived at the march on August 28 as dawn broke over the city. Louise set off down Pennsylvania Avenue, then separated from the marchers and went directly to the Lincoln Memorial. She watched and listened, eyes and ears alert to the rumors that groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Nation of Islam would cause violence. “I didn’t know to feel afraid,” she said, even though she was five hundred miles from home and alone the entire day. She remembers the peacefulness of Muslims, Christians, Jews, but said “it was a bi-racial world. You were white or you were Black.” Yet Louise’s very presence signaled that the Civil Rights Movement stretched beyond white and Black; all of its participants—those as important as King and as incidental as my mother—are woven together in its impacts.

My mother vaguely remembers A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. But 55 years later, “I’ll never forget the sound of that many people singing,” and she sang right there with them: "Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day."

In our family, singing is how we acquire the courage and strength necessary to drown out fear. As the marchers gathered that day, their own stories, presence, songs and collective power signified that Lincoln had not emancipated them in 1863. They had emancipated themselves, and would continue to do so.

For my mother and the Lumbee people, the Lincoln Memorial symbolized a struggle for visibility, while the moment in 1963 marked a new horizon of freedom’s possibility.

A century earlier in 1863, Dakota Chief Little Crow was assassinated in a war that Abraham Lincoln’s policies escalated. Concerned that he could not preserve the Union by defeating the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In doing so, he transformed the war’s goals from preserving the Union to securing freedom. Just a week before, on Christmas morning, 38 Dakota Indian soldiers were hanged before a crowd of thousands in Mankato, Minnesota; President Lincoln authorized their executions following the Dakota War of 1862. While the fight in the South would expand freedom, the fight in the West would expand territory for loyal American citizens. And like the Civil War, the roots of that conflict go back to the 1830s.

Minnesota’s Indigenous people, the Dakota, had been confined to a reservation far from their homelands along the Mississippi River (now the area around St. Paul and Minneapolis). Since 1837, the federal government had neglected the promises made in a series of treaties that had displaced the Dakota. Among other things, those treaties promised provisions for a place that had few game or other food that Dakotas had relied on for hundreds of years. The treaty also promised cash annuities, which Dakotas could use to pay local white merchants for supplies, clothes, and tools that, because of their displacement, they could no longer manufacture themselves. Food was not delivered; agents gave the annuities directly to merchants instead of to Dakotas; settlers cleared land that was not theirs, making it impossible for Indians to subsidize their failing crops with game. In 1860, Lincoln won the presidency and political power shifted to the Republicans. We know what happens next in the South, but we never think about the West.

Dakota warriors believed that if the federal government would not hold settlers and corrupt Indian agents accountable, then they would. In the summer of 1862, the annuity payments were late and a federal agent refused to open his warehouse of food until the payments arrived. Meanwhile, merchants stopped selling to Dakotas on credit. Chief Little Crow warned the Indian agent, “When people are hungry, they will help themselves,” to which local merchant Andrew Myrick, replied, “As far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.

Dakotas did not accept these circumstances passively; they defied the government’s long-standing logic that they would simply retreat in the wake of “superior” European civilization.

Republicans, under Lincoln’s leadership, had been aggressively writing laws to provide western homesteads for American citizens on land they did not possess. Dakotas were outraged, but Little Crow tried to convince them that the no-longer-United States would be eager to make an example out of insurrectionary Indians who resisted the Union’s desire to expand their territory. Little Crow’s army disagreed, arguing that now was the time to reclaim their territory and drive the settlers out. Little Crow would not abandon them, and with his soldiers proceeded to launch attacks on US troops and civilians. Andrew Myrick met an especially poignant end: shot to death with bullets and arrows, his mouth stuffed with grass.

While Little Crow held settlers accountable in Minnesota, the Union’s fortunes against the Confederacy looked worse and worse. As the Union lost to the Confederacy, Lincoln’s administration reallocated resources to the Dakota War and the investment paid off, historian Ari Kelman wrote in For Liberty and Empire: How the Civil War Bled into the Indian Wars. The Dakota rebellion ended in September 1862, and rather than treating encounters between Dakota and Union troops as battles, the Union tried the Dakotas as murderers, not soldiers. Defendants were not allowed to enter pleas, most trials were 10 minutes, and after only six weeks, 303 Dakota men were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Looking at the list of condemned men, Lincoln sought to shore up the legitimacy of a shaky federal government on the edges of what he hoped would be an American empire. He wrote, “[I am] anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.” He decided that 38 Dakota should die.

Lincoln’s act of clemency should be evaluated in the context of what happened next—he did not object when the Union Army enacted revenge against the remaining Dakota. General Pope said, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux,” and troops attacked Dakotas who had nothing to do with the war, using the conflict to justify the ultimate forced exile of the Dakota survivors from Minnesota. In July 1863, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg (which would finally turn the Civil War in the Union’s favor), a bounty hunter killed Little Crow as he was gathering food with his son. Why does this incident matter in the wake of Lincoln’s otherwise important contributions to the nation? No one has said it better than Martin Luther King Jr.: “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” In light of King’s words, the Lincoln Memorial reminds us that we are all implicated in dispossession and freedom.

Nathan Phillips, my mother Louise, Little Crow, and Indigenous people everywhere speak, with their guns, their songs, their prayers. Some of Lincoln’s political descendants, such as King and Philips, have improved upon his legacy while others have diminished it. These shared, overlapping, and contradictory histories are also part of what we face at the Lincoln Memorial.

Yet indigenous people still sing, unafraid, and with a courage that other Americans fear. We know they fear it because they would rather humiliate us—telling us to eat grass or smirking at our prayers—than face what it means to belong to a nation founded upon fraud and dispossession. Still, we fight with the tools best-suited to the situation, as we have for hundreds of years. Both Phillips and my mother sang their way into the kind of belonging that shares responsibility, that does not permit the accusation of “outside agitators.” No one is outside. That Indigenous people and people of African descent of vastly different times and places can hold such paradoxes together—violence and nonviolence—demonstrates that we do not show up to win or to lose, but to fight, maintaining our presence even as others wish to destroy or erase us.

About the Author

Malinda Maynor Lowery is Associate Professor and the Director for the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her interests include Native American history, southern history, historical geography, foodways, music, race and ethnicity, identity, and community-engaged research, including documentary film and oral history. She is the author of Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation and The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.