- Reshaping Southern Identity and PoliticsIndian Activism during the Civil Rights Era
When asked to summon a set of images from the civil rights era in the South most scholars and students of history invoke such iconic images as lunch counter sit-ins or impassioned speeches delivered by a leader like Martin Luther King Jr., who dominated headlines with his antisegregation campaign. Still others may point to the multiple cases of violence inflicted upon civil rights workers by a group such as the Ku Klux Klan, which regularly made national news. Whatever comes to mind—whether it involves brave young activists, articulate leaders, or race-based violence—these images clearly portray a period that provokes strong emotions tied to the movement for equal rights for black southerners in the face of a long and stable system of white supremacy.
This narrative, however, is incomplete. Although the black civil rights movement did indeed capture national attention and spur a revolution in race relations, it was not the only movement that contributed to the reshaping of southern identity and politics during the civil rights era. Things are not that simple. In fact, where civil rights era scholars are generally falling short is in the consideration and incorporation of the political activities and economic development efforts of southern Indians who, in addition to having to navigate a system of racial segregation in a region where they were often overlooked, went on to launch a distinct movement of their own—one that also proved critical to the South’s shifting political and social terrain during the second half of the twentieth century.
Beginning with localized efforts in the 1950s and gaining momentum by the 1970s, charismatic Indian activists across the Southeast leveraged the politically precarious positions of southern politicians as they [End Page 125] came under intense scrutiny and were looking for opportunities to improve their images. This opened the door within many southern states for historically significant relationships to be developed between Indian groups and state governments. At the same time, the national Indian political environment was also undergoing dramatic shifts, serving as a prominent catalyst in further shaping the direction of the movement. As a result, southern Indian leaders and activists became heavily involved in intertribal coalitions and alliances, previously unorganized groups developed tribal governments, tribes embarked on new economic ventures, and petitions for federal recognition were submitted by the dozens by groups hailing from the South.1
The southern Indian movement, like the black civil rights movement, was complex and dynamic. The diversity of the South’s Indian populations, which are identified by such characteristics as their locale and political status, dictated the roles that different groups played within the larger movement. The strategies and messages between Indian leaders who served as activists in promoting change also varied, generating some lively debates and offering some great insight into the ideological distinctions present within the movement. While a drive for tribal self-determination framed Indian activism on a national scale, distinguishing it from the mainstream activities of civil rights activists, Indian leaders were influenced by a variety of intellectual traditions.2
There is a great deal of scholarship on the South’s Indian population following World War II that focuses on revitalizing efforts, identity issues, recognition, and tribal development, serving as a strong basis for reimagining the dominant civil rights narrative.3 The diversity of the South makes it impossible to generalize the experiences of southern Native Americans, which is evident in the tendency of the scholarship to focus on specific groups or states. There is a need, however, for a more aggressive assessment of southern racial discourse and how it intersects with the political activities of Indians—much in the manner that the scholarship on black civil rights activism does.4 These narratives are two pieces of a whole that can provide a better understanding of the larger political and economic shifts that characterize the post–World War II South.
So how do we unpack such a complex story? The goal of this essay is to contribute to an ongoing conversation that scholars have been engaging in for decades about the broader role of Indian activism during...