Recalling King and discussing race relations on Martin Luther King Jr. day in Grand Forks
To mark MLK Day, the Herald with spoke with Maggie Lowery, an activist and educator who marched with the civil rights icon in the 1960s, and Tamba-Kuii Bailey, a UND administrator at the center of
Before she was one of the first Black students at UND, Maggie Lowery was marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in rural Alabama.
“There was just something about him,” Lowery, who grew up between Montgomery and Selma, told the Herald. “It was like meeting the pope or something.”
She recalled large-scale meetings at local churches throughout Lowndes County every Sunday and seeing King on television nearly every night.
“There was a lot of segregation, still,” Lowery recalled. “Schools were segregated. Some stores we could go into, but then wasn’t treated fairly. Lunch counters and all of these places, you know, segregated.”
When Lowery grew up, she enrolled at UND. She ultimately earned two undergraduate degrees from the university, a master's degree from Auburn and a doctorate in educational leadership from UND. After 30 years as a seamstress and juvenile corrections worker in California and an education administrator throughout the South, she moved back to Grand Forks in 2012 to finish her doctorate, then back to Alabama in 2019, then once again to Grand Forks in 2020.
Tamba-Kuii Bailey first moved to Grand Forks in 2009. Also a doctorate-holder, he is an assistant professor of counseling and counseling psychology at UND and a special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion .
Lowery spoke to the Herald about changes she’s seen in the Grand Forks area and more. Bailey answered a few Herald questions about King’s legacy, the work that’s been done in and around Grand Forks to improve race relations, and the work that still needs to be done. Both of their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Lowery on her reception in Grand Forks in 1971
“I had all kinds of friends. The white kids would invite me way out to the farm somewhere, I would be way out on the reservation somewhere. The entertainment and nightlife was spectacular," Lowery said. "... The Black kids called me crazy. And I’m like, ‘if you don’t like white people, why would you come to North Dakota?’”
Lowery on returning to Grand Forks in 2020
“Once I got back here, there had been that gentleman that killed a police officer, unfortunately, and it seemed like people were a little apprehensive, a little bit more than before,” Lowery said.
“But what I see is the biggest problem in North Dakota, and off into East Grand Forks and going over the west side of Minnesota and all of that, and when I read the news and listen to the news, it seems like there’s a severe drug problem with meth and a lot of hard drugs such as fentanyl and heroin and prescription pills. So that seems to be what has caused people to lock up and all these safety issues, especially around the Fargo area there’s robbing and shooting. That wasn’t even heard of when I first came here in the early '70s.”
Bailey on King’s legacy
“His influence is ever-present, rarely recognized. Many of the tactics used during the civil rights movement, many of the things Dr. King said in terms of the right to protest for rights are inherent in the foundation of what many communities do," Bailey said.
“There are segments of the community that definitely say we have to continue to fight for racial equity and fairness and treatment in this region. And I think there’s a lot of work for us to do to make sure that everybody sees that this continues to be a need in our region. It’s easy to get complacent and to make statements about things in terms of one-off-ness. That people engage in discriminatory, racist, sexist, oppressive behaviors as just individuals. I think it’s easy to do that. It becomes more difficult, and it can be a shortsightedness of our community, in not looking at the systemic issues.”
Lowery on the modern-day South
“Today, all those signature cities around Alabama — Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma — are just totally the opposite of what (King Jr.) intended. All of the doors he opened just closed in one way to the other. The biggest (problem) that I see is crime and violence in the Black neighborhoods, particularly, and I think it all starts from the schools. They got rid of a whole bunch of the vocational education programs, which sustained the Black communities back in those days. Now they’ve introduced special education. They start identifying students, mostly Black boys, as having mental disorders, such as behavior disorders, emotional behavioral disorders, or having severe learning disorders. So now that, with no vocational education, too much special education, when these students, many of them, graduate from high school … they actually have no skills and they often are diagnosed with mental disabilities that prevent them from doing many other things, entering many other fields, such as being a police officer, a soldier, fireman, stuff like that. So this is what you see in the neighborhood that’s got all the crime going.”
“Now, some people are obviously being trained, but what the schools have done, they have an AP program, magnet program, where they can separate those who are fortunate enough to get into those programs. And those students do go on to college, and many of them are successful.”
Bailey on the progression of race relations in the Grand Cities
“There’s a continued sense of outsider-ness, and I think it’s for anybody — if you’re not from North Dakota. But I do think that there’s also greater acts of invitation, of concern around wellbeing for people of color, for new immigrants who’ve come to the community. So I do think that that has been part of the growth in the community. I think probably 15 years ago, 13 years ago, somebody coming to the community maybe would have been met with, whether it be outright negative attitudes and treatment, I think they may experience a greater sense of welcome, and a desire to connect," Bailey said.
“I think that, for many, they’ve been able to see that … supporting the police and supporting Black Lives Matter are not separate things. For some, they see it as separate things, but I do think that progress is, for many, saying that these things can be connected in that the concern around police brutality or injustice in the justice system is a very different thing. We can have fair policing and we can support Black Lives Matter.”
Bailey on what needs to be done next
“We do need to continue to deal with, not just race relationships, but specifically what's happening to people of color in our community. We have North Dakota, and so here people smile at you but it doesn’t mean that they have accepted individuals into their community. I continue to see people of color being marginalized and not being included in our community. It doesn’t mean that’s in every instance for every person. I think the community has to allow people of color to talk about their lived experience and not invalidate that," Bailey said. "And so that Critical Race Theory law is an attempt to invalidate the lived experience of people of color in this state. Nobody’s walking around blaming white folks for what happened in 1915, 1950. It’s not that. But there is also recognition that that historical past and those historical traumas impact our present. That is undeniable. I do think we need to have honest conversations. And so, to me, that law was a pre-emptive approach of saying in the school, one of the best places to have conversations – there’s an attempt to stop conversations from happening. I think we have to go in the other direction and encourage conversations.”
Lowery on the Voting Rights Act
“We’re right back at talking about the right to vote . With all that we have to contend with in America, why are we going back to revisit voting rights? You know, we had passed that and they should just leave that alone for those who want to vote. Just let people vote," Lowery said. "... The ones who like to vote, they’ll vote, they’ll stand out seven, eight hours to vote, and I guess that’s why they’re trying to eliminate voting because that’s something that people of color and all, we’ll do. Especially the older generations.”
Bailey on policies, new or reformed
“People are going to disagree, but we need to remove the requirement for IDs when people are going to vote. We see that it’s become a burden, particularly for our Indigenous brothers and sisters to have an ID, a government ID, that has your street address on it. To me, that policy is an attempt to limit who is voting, who has access to determine who are our politicians or our legislators and what are the issues we need to address in our community,” Bailey said.
“We don’t have laws in the books that say outright, ‘I’m going to discriminate against individuals.’ We don’t see that in North Dakota. But we have things that have inherently treated people in a particular way.”