Rev. Lawrence remembers late activist Means’ sermon
The Rev. Robert Lawrence remembers the moving sermon that the late Native American activist and actor Russell Means delivered at the First Congregational Church when he visited Fall River 20 years ago.
“He had strong beliefs in what was right. There was a spiritual dimension about him that you could not ignore. He believed in justice for his people,” Lawrence said Wednesday as he recalled Means’ visit to the Scholarship City.
Means, a Wanblee native who gained notoriety for starring in movies and participating in a 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, died early Monday morning at his ranch in Porcupine, S.D. He was 72.
Lawrence, the pastor emeritus of the First Congregational Church on Rock Street, invited Means to Fall River to speak about his Native American heritage as part of the city’s annual springtime event to celebrate multiculturalism.
The city’s rich ethnic tapestry was represented with the Portuguese, French, Polish and Lebanese, among others, but Lawrence felt a Native American presence was needed.
Means certainly offered that. He was an early leader of the American Indian Movement, an activist organization that organized high-profile protests to bring attention to indigenous American causes, including the United States’ violations of treaties with several tribes.
In 1973, Means appeared as a spokesman for AIM’s armed occupation of Wounded Knee, which resulted in a 71-day siege that included gunbattles with federal officers.
Means was politically active and ran as an independent candidate for president. He was often controversial, and was embroiled in the 1976 murder of a Native American woman that authorities suspected AIM had been responsible for. Means blamed an AIM leader for ordering the killing, which that leader denied before his death in 2008.
Besides political causes, Means recorded music and appeared in films, including “Last of the Mohicans.” In 1995, he published his autobiography, “Where White Men Fear to Tread.”
On Wednesday, Lawrence showed a visitor an autographed copy of that biography. Means wrote on the inside cover: “To my friend in Mass who likes the PATS!”
Lawrence also still has a picture of himself with Means standing outside the First Congregational Church. A few years later, Lawrence saw Means at a book signing in Santa Fe, N.M., introduced himself and asked Means if he remembered him.
“He said, ‘Yeah. Your Patriots aren’t doing too well,’” said Lawrence, who remembered Means was an avid Raiders fan.
“He was the most charismatic person I’ve ever seen. He was firm in what he believed,” Lawrence said.
Before leaving Fall River, Means went shopping in the city’s knitting mills, visited a farm in Westport and watched Sunday football at Lawrence’s home. At Logan Airport in Boston, Means — a tall, physically imposing man — gave Lawrence a hug so strong that it hurt.
“He was an unsung hero for the Native American cause,” Lawrence said. “I think we need to respect that.”