Black voting rights takes stage at Sioux Falls MLK Day event

Black voting rights takes stage at Sioux Falls MLK Day event
Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 9:33 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Fifty-one years ago, almost to this day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about race relations on the grounds of what is now Van Eps Park in downtown Sioux Falls.

Two years ago, that speech was immortalized on Martin Luther King Day with the dedication of a statue, sculpted by local civil rights activist Porter Williams.

Monday’s MLK Day ceremony not only honored King, but prompted a call to action from the recipient of Mayor Paul TenHaken’s “Martin Luther King Day in Sioux Falls” proclamation, Inkka Beaudoin.

“As one of our community leaders, I stand here not to pay lip service to Dr. King’s legacy, and I ask you do the same,” said Inkka Beaudoin, a member of the South Dakota African-American Museum board.

“I ask you to advocate for what Dr. King would have advocated or, and join his family and ours in fighting for voters’ rights.”

Standing next to Beaudoin was Williams, a Sioux Falls resident for over 60 years, who remembers what life was like for black people in Sioux Falls in the MLK days, including the day he spoke in Sioux Falls on Jan. 12, 1961.

“He spoke at the Cataract Hotel, but he couldn’t stay there,” Williams said. “There were different restaurants and parts of Sioux Falls we couldn’t live in.”

About three years ago, TenHaken green-lighted Williams’ idea to make an MLK statue for Van Eps Park.

Williams had no idea the impact it would make in short time, when it became the launching spot for the city’s George Floyd march five months after dedication in January of 2020.

“All those thousands of people standing down here - I’m still in awe that many people in the city of Sioux Falls would stand up for a non-violent action,” Williams said. A majority of the people, about 90 percent, were white people. I didn’t get that kind of support (back in the 1960′s).”

So, how have race relations gone since that day in the summer of 2020?

“It’s slipping,” Williams said, “with the Supreme Court stacked the way it is, and with all these different states that are making it hard for Black people to vote... They’d move the booths or whatever, move them outside that community, and they can’t get there to vote.”

And why would some lawmakers want to suppress black voters?

“If people of color, if we were to come together and unite,” Beaudoin said, “the power that we would have to make changes we see fit and are needed in the White House or in public office, I think people are afraid of that, because that’s when real changes would happen.”

Williams fears that change won’t happen unless more people of all races stand up against voter suppression, starting by registering to vote.

“When Trump said to a bunch of Black people, ‘what do you got to lose,’ I said to myself, ‘the right to vote,’ and we’re losing that right. I mean, what’s next? Jim Crow? I hope not.”

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