Not in King’s Name: A Rodeo is No Tribute to King’s Legacy by Joel Helfrich

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Can you imagine Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and one of his sons, both of whom adopted vegan diets years ago, supporting a rodeo? The fact that a portion of the Stock Show held each year in Denver, Colorado, is called The Martin Luther King Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo is insulting to King’s legacy. We can imagine that King would not only find such an event offensive but would have boycotted the rodeo. He most likely would have staged an alternative march to the parade.

King’s legacy, nearly 45 years after his death, is about tolerance, understanding, nonviolence, and believe-it-or-not, animal rights activism, certainly through the example of his son, Dexter Scott King, but also through personal choices that his wife, Coretta Scott King, made during the last ten years of her life. It is conceivable that King would have adopted a vegan diet if he had lived beyond age 39.

King’s influences and the people that he influenced are many. Most people do not realize that Rosa Parks, the woman at the center of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was a vegetarian for over 40 years who credited her diet with helping her to maintain her health and stamina. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory is a vegan; so is Cornel West. Cory Booker, the celebrity Mayor of Newark, New Jersey (now U.S. Senator) is now a vegan. King’s good friend, César Chávez, President of United Farm Workers of America, was a vegetarian. In 1990, he wrote, “Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same fabric: violence.” King’s son, who made the shift to a vegan diet because of animal welfare and rights, has stated that vegetarianism is the logical extension of his father’s philosophy and teachings regarding non-violence.

I tend to agree. I do not support the rodeo, torturing animals, the use of animals as entertainment (another word for exploitation), or hollow claims about culture as a main reason that rodeo activity persists, and would love to see the abolition of barbaric rodeo events. People should start to see animals as living creatures who have pain and fear and anxiety, just like anyone else. But I do not need to know King to understand that what humans are doing to other sentient beings on the planet is wrong, nor do I need a rodeo to teach me about his life. What is also shortsighted is the belief that you need a rodeo to teach people about black cowboys or honor King’s legacy. According to the creator of this specific event, Lu Vason, a goal of his is to “teach the public that there were plenty of African-American cowboys in the Old West.” He continued, “The history itself was basically eliminated from movies and history books. Our charge is to bring about more awareness.”

Longtime rodeo “performer” Maurice Wade agreed, according to columnist Joe Vaccarelli, and “said he would like to encourage all who believe in what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for to support this in his honor. ‘It’s because of that movement that we are able to compete.’” These comments led me to wonder: couldn’t the organizers find a more suitable example for this rodeo from the hundreds of known historic black cowboys throughout the Old West to represent their plans? The Black American West Museum and Heritage Center alone should have told the organizers a great amount about black cowboys and offered more names than just Bill Pickett.

As the famous influence on King’s life work, vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi, reminded us in 1925, one of the seven deadly sins or blunders, which applies directly to this situation, is “pleasure without conscience.” Hopefully the good citizens of Denver are aware enough to realize that rodeos are violent displays of abuse toward animals, that we do not need such events to teach African American history to school children or the general public, and that this event in no way honors Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy.

Joel Helfrich teaches history at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, and environmental studies at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.

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