GREAT FALLS — Marcus Collins and his family have lived in Montana for over 25 years. Andre Murphy and his have been here for 16 years. Both Collins and Murphy are part of Montana’s second-smallest designated population, according to the most recent available statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and montana.gov: Black/African-American.
But the two have more in common, and play a more important role in the Great Falls community, than just the color of their skin. Both men are pastors, Collins at Alexander Temple Church of God in Christ, Murphy at Living Grace Church. And both use that platform to promote conversations about race and inequality whenever they can.
During a global pandemic, that doesn’t look quite the same as it used to. “COVID has actually caused not just the church, but all of the world to kind of step back and rebrand and restructure how we do things,” admitted Collins, seated in front of the chancel in his church on a mild February day.
I bring up the February timestamp because it’s a key factor in this story. February is Black History Month, but Collins and Murphy are hoping that conversations about race, systemic injustice, and the role that African-Americans played in this country’s and Montana’s history can continue outside the confines of the shortest month of the year.
‘What does Black History Month mean to you?’ The first question I pose to Pastor Murphy is unreasonably broad, but it’s that way for a reason.
He pauses for a moment as the silence of the snow falling outside is deafening. Our conversation was just a few days after I sat down with Pastor Collins. Same week, drastically different temperatures. Montana weather, right?
Murphy takes a deep breath, usually indicating an answer is imminent. “What I automatically think about is just that one time of year that people think ‘now we can focus on African-Americans or black people or black history.’ If I’m just 100% honest, it’s kind of sad to me that we have to set aside a specific time to talk about it,” he says. I can tell that it’s a thought he’s entertained previously. “I don’t think Black History should be something that we cut out one little piece of the pie to talk about. I think that it should be interwoven into all of our history so that it’s talked about like when we talk about George Washington, we talk about the accomplishments that happened before George Washington. We don’t just talk about Rosa Parks in February, we talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott throughout the year.”
To Murphy’s point, every race, not just Blacks and African-Americans, have such rich, extensive histories that it can’t possibly be enough to only remember them one month out of the year. Native American Heritage Month (November), Women’s Heritage Month (March), and others exist to celebrate and remember, but can we do more?
For an answer to that question, I turned to Ken Robison, a historian based in Great Falls. He’s a fountain of historical knowledge, who told so many stories during our conversation that we couldn’t possibly hope to share them all here.
“I would love to get us to the point where we don't need Black History Month,” Robison said. “Because every month you read a book and you find the stories that are in there cover all the ethnic groups, the natives, the African-Americans and so on. So, you don't have to do everything in one month. You have it embedded in the books that are written and the books in school and the things you study and learn.”
Sitting down for a conversation with Robison is a history class in and of itself. He shared stories about Alma Smith Jacobs, a Great Falls High School graduate and the Head Librarian at the Great Falls Public Library from 1954–1973 that eventually went on to become the first African-American to serve as the Montana State Librarian, Leo Lamar, who owned and operated the Ozark Club in Great Falls, where blacks were welcomed to dance and socialize when they weren’t allowed in other nearby clubs, and several Black Civil War soldiers who settled in the Treasure State following the end of the war in the late 1800s.
I asked Robison how Montana has done historically with embracing diversity. Statistically one of the least diverse states in the country (89.2% white according to a 2015 estimate), analyzing how Montana did with accepting people regardless of the color of their skin in its first 100 years could give some insight into how it will do in its next 100 years.
“Montana's had, with the rest of the nation, struggles toward full equality,” he explained. “We make progress, but we're never fully there. And I think if, if I were a native standing here talking about today's Montana, I'd say there's still quite a bit of progress to go.”
Robison also estimated that an African-American’s perspective would be welcoming of the progress, but with a desire for further progress. So, what do Pastors Collins and Murphy have to say?
“I think that last June, when the George Floyd incident shook up America, I believe that it forced not only Montana, but all of America to look at our issues,” Collins explained. “We were blessed that we were able to have open forums and open discussion. What has to be said is that the open forum and the open discussions are just the beginning of the progress of our nation, and we see that even in the transition of power. So, the fact that we can start this dialogue is phenomenal. It’s phenomenal.”
“For the most part, I’ve had lots of great things happen to me here,” said Murphy. “I became a pastor here, my youngest son was born here, my wife grew up here, met a lot of really nice people here, but there have been some situations. There have been some situations where people have called me things or followed me around stores or I’ve been a suspect when I’m the one who called the police. And when I would tell people those stories, a lot of times they would just kind of look at me like ‘you’re being too sensitive’ or ‘you’re overreacting.’ When people of color are telling you that something bad happened to them, don’t automatically assume that they’re overreacting, that they’re being too sensitive.”
Collins and Murphy are both hoping that, through activism and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, those conversations about Black History and systemic racism that might typically be confined to February can become more common and incorporate even more voices.
“I think by being okay with everybody not agreeing with you,” Murphy said when I asked him how we begin to have more of these meaningful, impactful conversations. “I think one of the problems we have is that a lot of people don’t want to have hard conversations because they think, if me and you sit down, they think we’ve automatically got to agree to have a conversation. No, the reason we need to sit down is because we don’t agree. If we agree on everything, there’s no need for us to talk, but I think a lot of people shy away from that, and I think it’s okay to not agree, but I think we got to be okay with not agreeing. I think some of the best conversations I’ve had with people dealing with race and injustice and things like that were people who are completely opposite of me, and I walked away learning a little bit about myself and a little bit about them.”
Collins echoed Murphy’s answer, calling for more conversations and opportunities for discussion like the “All Things Not Black: The State of Race in America” forum that he hosted in June 2020 at his church, even if they’re uncomfortable.
“We get back to having those discussions and, honestly, those painful truths, simply by reaching out to our civic leaders, which we continue to do,” he said. “Being a part of committees and different commissions in the city, by continuing talking with our coworkers just in our everyday life, our coworkers, our family members. Gauging the climate, the racial climate of those people around us. I love, in my individual life, not simply my pastoral life, I love to challenge people with not just talking about race, but joking about race. Because what has also happened with all of this tension, we have disengaged each other to the point that we were already social distancing socially, not just because of the virus. And so, the blessing of continuing these conversations, it helps us to kind of engage each other and become a closer nation.”