Back at the start of my career in journalism, I met Billy Frank Jr., and shared a meal and a few laughs with him. In those days, some people considered Frank to be a pesky radical who was nothing but trouble, but I found him to be a kind, gregarious guy with a great sense of humor and an unflagging devotion to his cause.
Frank’s cause was to win back the fishing rights that local tribes had been promised by treaties. He first was arrested for “illegal” fishing when he was just 14 and, over the next several decades, was arrested another 50 times or more. Yet, he wouldn’t give up and, with a landmark federal court decision in 1974, he and the tribes finally prevailed.
Frank did not stop there. After winning that long battle, he proved himself to be a committed environmentalist, leading the state’s efforts to protect endangered salmon runs as the head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a cause that served not only his tribe, but all of us.
Like the several elder civil rights activists from the 1960s whom I have met in recent years, Frank was not full of himself, nor was he someone with alien ideas hellbent on destroying America. This champion of Native American rights and the environment was an ordinary man who was extraordinarily brave in his struggle to get our country to live up to its promises and ideals.
Frank died in 2014 at the age of 83 and, now, the state Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill that would place a statue of Frank in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, replacing a bronze image of pioneer missionary Marcus Whitman that has represented Washington state since 1953. I am pretty sure Frank would be highly amused that, after all his troublemaking and visits to jail, a carved replica of himself may stand among the likes of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, but he would certainly not mind also being in the company of Rosa Parks, Sacagawea and Frederick Douglass.
If Billy Frank Jr. joins this illustrious crowd, it will be a testament to the fact that great things can be achieved by ordinary people who simply stand up for what is right and make it the work of their lives.
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