This question was inspired by the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, set in Mississippi in 1937. While the events are clearly fictional, the film draws a lot of historical inspiration from real prople and places.
The climax of the film involves a candidate for governor of Mississippi publicly announcing his membership in the Klu Klux Klan. (He doesn't name the group, but calls it "a certain secret society" that performs "sacred cross burnings"). He then denounces the film's protagonists -- a now-popular singing group -- as miscegenated escaped felons and demands they be arrested.
His speech ultimately results in the crowd turning against him and running him out of town. But it's not clear if his popularity was destroyed by his racist views, or merely because he stopped the band from playing. I would have thought that, in the 1930's, it would still have been relatively safe for a white Southern politician to find himself associated with the KKK, though I believe they were on the decline already.
So, would such an affiliation being made public have ruined the political career and/or social standing of a southern politician?
At times, it was, but not in the period that movie is depicting.
One should note that there were three organizations under that name in different historical periods. While similar in their goals, they were still quite different. In the period the movie is depicting, the KKK of 1920s was primarily a political organization uniting white Protestants against everything they considered threatening to their moral norms. The KKK in this period was not only anti-desegregation, but also anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Most of the members were not violent extremists, but rather ultraconservatives afraid of changes in society.
Quite a few US politicians had Klan connections in this period. While none of them ever admitted their connection to the group in public of their own accord, exposure was not always fatal for their reputation: in 1924 Georgia governor Clifford Walker, while initially denying any Klan involvement, under pressure from the press admitted being a member - but still served his term. On the other hand, exposure could be have much more serious consequences; see, for example, wiki article on KKK references, and an article by Christopher N. Cocoltchos, "The Invisible Empire and the Search for the Orderly Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Anaheim, California", in Shawn Lay (ed.), The invisible empire in the West (2004), pp. 97-120. According to this, "The Klan representatives easily won the local election in Anaheim in April 1924. They fired known city employees who were Catholic and replaced them with Klan appointees. <… > The opposition organized, bribed a Klansman for the secret membership list, and exposed the Klansmen running in the state primaries; they defeated most of the candidates. Klan opponents in 1925 took back local government, and succeeded in a special election in recalling the Klansmen who had been elected in April 1924."
By 1930, the Klan's public image had been completely ruined by acts of terror commotted by their vigilante members and there were several trials of its leaders that achieved great publicity (for example, Stephenson vs State). This page gives an estimate of 30,000 members by 1930, down from 4,000,000 in 1924 (this estimate is taken from "The Various Shady Lives of The Ku Klux Klan". Time. April 9, 1965). While these estimates might be inaccurate, the group's public visibility rapidly declined and it was basically non-existent until its resurgence after the WW2.
Thus, it isn't very likely that in 1937 any US politician would find it acceptable to admit his Klan membership, in South or otherwise. 10 years earlier or 50 later - maybe (although still unlikely), but not in this particular period.
This question was inspired by the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, set in Mississippi in 1937… I would have thought that, in the 1930's, it would still have been relatively safe for a white Southern politician to find himself associated with the KKK
In the movie, clearly the 1937, Mississippi crowd was upset by the interruption of the music, not the Klan affiliation. The first clue to this answer should be, Who was the Senator from Mississippi in 1937?
Theodore G. Bilbo - former two term Governor of Mississippi(January 17, 1928 - January 19, 1932). And United States Senator (January 3, 1935 - August 21, 1947) Like many Southern Democrats of his era, Bilbo believed that black people were inferior; he defended segregation, and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.. First Identified as a Klansman by a newspaper called the Dixie Demagogues, in 1939. He continued to win reelection to the US Senate through 1946, and died in office in 1947. When asked about whether he remained in the Klan in a national interview on Meet the Press in 1946, he responded.
"No man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux. Theodore G. Bilbo on Meet the Press 1946,
Yes, The Klan was a political force in this country, and not just in the South, and not just in the early 1900's. It was powerful nationally around the time of the Great Depression and it remained powerful in parts of the country right up to Martin Luther King's civil rights movement of the 1960's.
The klan had a major resurrection in the United States after the release of DW Griffins(1915)wildly popular birth of a Nation and not just in the south. The most popular period of the klan was known as the second klan(1914-1944). and that fully covers the period of the film “Brother Where Art Thou”. During this period klan membership peaked 1924-1925 at 6 million people.
becoming a political power throughout many regions of the United States, not just in the South. Its local political strength throughout the country gave it a major role in the 1924 Democratic Party National Convention (DNC). The 20th Century Ku Klux Klan was notoriously anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, in addition to being anti-black.
The Democratic nomination convention in 1924 held in New York City was known as the klanbake because so many attendees were klansmen. There absolutely were times and places that being in the klan was a political asset. A significant part of a political machine.
The answer to your question:
Was being in the kkk politically socially acceptable in early 1900s american.
YES absolutely. Even as late as the 1960's guys like George Wallace and Bull Connors made support of racism in general and the klan specifically their political base.
( I was living in Alabama in the mid 1980's when George Wallace won his last term as Governor. He did it with overwhelming support from the African American Community. He was a populist at heart I guess, and he used those skills to worm his way into a new political base and revive his political career, when the State of Alabama's political landscape had changed significantly. )
Eugene "Bull" Connor was Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety in 1961 when the… He was known as an ultra-segregationist with close ties to the KKK.
I don't know if you know who Bull Connors was. Klan affiliation didn't hurt his reelection efforts throughout the 1960's. He was the head racist in the city of Birmingham Alabama, responsible for enforcing segregation laws and generally roughing people up who didn't like those laws. He became the antagonist to one of the great stand offs of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. Martin Luther King wanted to pick a fight with a racist on national TV. Bull Connors was his man. Previous marches to Birmingham by Adults had been met by fire hoses and attack dogs. Martin Luther King responded by sending a wave of children protesters… some as young as 8 years old. Bull Connors did not disappoint, using attack dogs and fire hoses on the children, captured by national TV camera's it became a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement as folks all across the country became familiar with Bull Connors. May 3, 1963.
Bull Connors was defeated for re-election in 1972!!!
The list of klan affiliated politicians over the years isn't limited to the South, nor the early 1900's. It is long enough to be a cliche.
Robert Bird senator from West Virginia was a recruiter for the klan and rose to the office of grand cyclopes. An outspoken advocate of the klan in the senate early in his career. Early on the clan was his political base.
Hugo Black Supreme Court justice(1937 to 1971) and senator from Alabama (1927 to 1937). Black, a Democrat, joined the Ku Klux Klan in order to gain votes from the anti-Catholic element in Alabama. He built his winning Senate campaign around multiple appearances at KKK meetings across Alabama.
Edward L. Jackson Gov of Indiana , joined the Ku Klux Klan during its revival in the early 1920s. When he became Governor of Indiana as a Republican in 1925, his administration came under fire for granting undue favor to the Klan's agenda and associates.
Rice W. Means, a Republican United States Senator from Colorado, was a member of the Klan in Colorado.
Clarence Morley was a Republican governor of Colorado from 1925 to 1927. He was a KKK member and a strong supporter of Prohibition. He tried to ban the Catholic Church from using sacramental wine and attempted to have the University of Colorado fire all Jewish and Catholic professors.
Bibb Graves, a Democrat, who was the 38th Governor of Alabama. He lost his first campaign for governor in 1922, but four years later, with the secret endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, he was elected to his first term as governor. Graves was almost certainly the Exalted Cyclops (chapter president) of the Montgomery chapter of the Klan. Graves, like Hugo Black, used the strength of the Klan to further his electoral prospects.
George Gordon, a Democrat and Congressman for Tennessee's 10th congressional district, became one of the Klan's first members. In 1867, Gordon became the Klan's first Grand Dragon for the Realm of Tennessee, and wrote its Precept, a book describing its organization, purpose, and principles.
Around the time the period of the second Klan came to an end the popular Radio show Superman did a 16 episode arch on Superman fighting the Klan in 1947. A man named Stetson who was associated with the Stetson hat company(descendant)… infiltrated the Klan, learned their secrets and with Superman's(the radio program's) help, spread those secrets nationally. I've read several sources(freakanomics) which credit Superman for ending the second Klan, or at least averting the same kind of resurgence the klan had at the end of WWI, in WWII.
The Indiana Klan was a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society in the United States that organized in 1915 to promote ideas of racial superiority and affect public affairs on issues of Prohibition, education, political corruption, and morality. It was strongly white supremacist against African Americans, Chinese Americans, and also Catholics and Jews, whose faiths were commonly associated with Irish, Italian, Balkan, and Slavic immigrants and their descendants. In Indiana, the Klan did not tend to practice overt violence but used intimidation in certain cases, whereas nationally the organization practiced illegal acts against minority ethnic and religious groups.
The Indiana Klan rose to prominence beginning in the early 1920s after World War I, when white Protestants felt threatened by social and political issues, including changes caused by decades of heavy immigration from southern and eastern Europe. By 1922 the state had the largest organization nationally, and its membership continued to increase dramatically under the leadership of D.C. Stephenson. It averaged 2,000 new members per week from July 1922 to July 1923, when he was appointed as the Grand Dragon of Indiana. He led the Indiana Klan and other chapters he supervised to break away from the national organization in late 1923.
Indiana's Klan organization reached its peak of power in the following years, when it had 250,000 members, an estimated 30% of native-born white men. By 1925 over half the elected members of the Indiana General Assembly, the Governor of Indiana, and many other high-ranking officials in local and state government were members of the Klan. Politicians had also learned they needed Klan endorsement to win office.
That year Stephenson was charged and convicted for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, a young schoolteacher. His vile behavior caused a sharp drop in Klan membership, which decreased further with his exposure to the press of secret deals and the Klan's bribery of public officials. Denied pardon, in 1927 Stephenson began to talk to the Indianapolis Times, giving them lists of people who had been paid by the Klan. Their press investigation exposed many Klan members, showed they were not law-abiding, and ended the power of the organization, as members dropped out by the tens of thousands. By the end of the decade, the Klan was down to about 4,000 members and finished in the state. Efforts by some to revive it in the period of the 1960s and 1970s were not successful.
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The media and the Ku Klux Klan: a debate that began in the 1920s
I n the 1920s, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan exploded nationwide, thanks in part to its coverage in the news media. One newspaper exposé is estimated to have helped the Klan gain hundreds of thousands of members.
Dr Felix Harcourt, a professor of history at Austin College and the author of Ku Klux Kulture, breaks down what he calls the “mutually beneficial” relationship between the Klan and the press – and explains how much the debate that raged over coverage of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s mirrors today’s arguments.
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We’re looking at the debate that is happening in the media right now over how to deal with white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements. You looked at the same debate that was happening almost 100 years ago. Can you set the scene for us?
In 1921, the New York World ran a three-week front page exposé of the Klan: daily denunciations of its ideology, of its activities, of its hooded secrecy, and its propensity to violence. They managed to get virtually every major New York representative on record in opposition to the Klan. They ultimately spark a congressional hearing into the Klan’s growing power. By some estimates it boosts the World’s circulation by over 100,000 readers. It is syndicated to 17 other newspapers and sparks similar exposés around the country. But some have estimated that while the World picks up 100,000 readers, the Klan’s gain is in the hundreds of thousands of new members – reportedly even cutting out membership applications from the New York World stories to join this organization they were just now hearing about.
So they’re saying, “Here is the Klan’s secret membership application form. Isn’t it terrible that this is what hate looks like in the United States?” and people cut that out of their newspapers and say, “I’m going to join.”
Why didn’t something similar play out during an earlier period of Klan activity?
To some extent, it’s changing newspaper styles. By the time the 20s come along, there’s been a tremendous move towards tabloid and ballyhoo journalism. And, effectively, the coverage of the Klan fit perfectly into that trend. It made for striking images on the front pages of papers. It drew lots of eyeballs. And the Klan was entirely aware of this. They were very careful to stage-manage events so as to draw maximum attention, and they made a concerted effort to invite journalists but then took care not to let journalists get too close – so as to “protect the secrets” ostensibly, to protect the mythos. But this is all a tactic of theirs –they need the press attention, but have to maintain their mystique.
So the Klan was aware of the media context it was operating in?
Very aware. They know that pictures of the Klan – clear, closeup pictures – are very desirable for a lot of newspapers. So they set up their own press photographer and then sell those photos to the local newspapers. They know that certain kinds of events are going to draw more press attention, which is why you see continually escalating events to have the largest fiery cross in the United States or the fleet of aeroplanes with electric crosses hanging from underneath. And there really is this emphasis on showmanship.
How did the debates over the media coverage play out initially and then change?
The tendency is to follow the New York World model of hyperbolic denunciation. Increasingly, though, there is an awareness that the Klan wields very effective methods of regulating the kinds of coverage it receives. Sometimes they would use physical threats. The editors of the Messenger [an African-American magazine] received a severed hand in the mail. But more often, because they grew in power and influence, they were able to wield the boycott as a very, very effective tool – and increasingly advertising, to promise advertising dollars to publications that followed at least a neutral line on the organization.
Did that focus on advertising dollars pay off?
Almost certainly. They hire big name agencies early on in the 20s. You see very widely circulated advertisements claiming, “This is the truth about the Klan. Don’t listen to what the press is saying.” A lot of particularly white mainstream dailies are increasingly aware that while denouncing the Klan can gain some readers, it can also lose them readers. The way to benefit is, it seems, to cover the Klan in a fairly neutral light. The problem with that of course is that by attempting to be impartial what you’re really doing is presenting the Klan as normalized and sanitized –controversial, yes, but a popular and widely accepted organization.
So what groups and communities are contesting the way that the KKK is portrayed in the media?
Catholic, Jewish and black newspapers pushed back. Some in the black press think that the best thing to do is to deny the Klan any publicity whatsoever – what was referred to at the time as “dignified silence”. Others, however, compare the Klan to a wildfire. Cutting the oxygen off will eventually kill it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to do tremendous damage in the meantime. And so other papers argue that there needs to be a far more active press campaign. So rather than presenting the story of a popular day at the Texas State Fair dedicated to the Klan, for example, a publication like the Pittsburgh Courier would instead focus on planned rallies that descended into violence and riots – to try to combat this idea that was being peddled implicitly in mainstream white newspapers that while the Klan was controversial, it was successful.
Was humor or mockery used by journalists?
You see a lot of political cartoons lampooning the Klan, but one of the most prominent theater critics of the time noted that the Klan could prosper in a cloud of custard pies. This mockery wasn’t really having any effect on Klan membership. Quite often Klan members and Klan sympathizers saw those criticisms as evidence of having the right enemies, that they were on the right track. And so these critiques, ultimately, often end up being counterproductive.
You said that, eventually, the Klan moved beyond even favorable mainstream press coverage and made their own outlets.
The national Klan leadership create their own national newspaper syndicate called the Kourier, with a K, which, by the beginning of 1925, claimed a circulation of over one and a half million readers. The likelihood is that that is an inflated number, as with any numbers the Klan claimed. But even if we say that there was only half a million readers that would still make it one of the most widely read weekly publications in the United States to that point. It was a really valuable form of propaganda to effectively replace existing sources of news with this publication that used local news but also brought a national news and presented all of it through this Klannish ideological lens.
What kind of national stories would run in a Klan paper?
The relationship between the US and Mexico. Presidential politics. Balanced by the idea that this is meant to be a family publication, so you would have a lengthy denunciation of Catholic influence in America on one page and on the next page a recipe for pimento toast. A page for young readers with a joke. It had crosswords and puzzles ridiculously called the fiery crossword.
You’ve been describing an ascendant organization running its own newspaper and explosion in membership. What happened? Why didn’t it last?
There is kind of a standard narrative that says that outside pressure and particularly scandal revolve around one of the major Klan leaders in Indiana who sexually assaults a woman who then kills herself. These scandals ultimately discredit the Klan and the public eye and lead to their collapse. Alternatively there are arguments that after the 1924 Immigration Act is passed the Klan has to some extent lost its reason for being and kind of dissolves back into the ether. These traditional narratives are problematic though because none of them really deal with the fact that while the Klan as an organization goes away the Klan as a movement remains entirely present because the people who had made up the Klan – the millions of members and the millions of sympathizers – don’t suddenly change their minds about their beliefs. And so it’s less accurate to say that the Klan collapses than it is to say that the Klan evolves into new forms.
What effect did the debate over the Klan and the coverage of the Klan in the 20s have on the media going forward? Did their approaches to this kind of story change?
It had remarkably very little impact. It’s kind of a sad story. There was a crusade in newspapers through the 20s, who took bold stances against the Klan, even if those bold stances ultimately were not very effective in combating it. But the fact that these stances had been taken under a number of these papers which had been awarded Pulitzer prizes allowed the press by really the 1930s onward to look back and congratulate themselves on having defeated the Klan.
So newspapers looked back and they saw their Pulitzer prize-winning investigations and they ignored the fact that coverage had in fact grown the Klan’s membership.
Yes. There is very little historical awareness of the reality of the relationship between the Klan and the press, which was really a relationship of mutual exploitation, more than anything.
American Experience asked sociologist and Ku Klux Klan scholar David Cunningham to provide responses to the five questions he is most frequently asked about the Klan. The author of Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era KKK (Oxford University Press, 2013), Cunningham is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Brandeis University.
David Cunningham. Credit: Rick Friedman
Before discussing the most pressing questions people tend to have about the KKK, let me add some background for basic context. The Ku Klux Klan was first formed in 1866, through the efforts of a small band of Confederate veterans in Tennessee. Quickly expanding from a localized membership, the KKK has become perhaps the most resonant representation of white supremacy and racial terror in the U.S. Part of the KKK's enduring draw is that it refers not to a single organization, but rather to a collection of groups bound by use of now-iconic racist symbols -- white hoods, flowing sheets, fiery crosses -- and a predilection for vigilante violence. The Klan's following has tended to rise and fall in cycles often referred to as "waves." The original KKK incarnation was largely halted following federal legislation targeting Klan-perpetrated violence in the early 1870s. The Klan's second -- and largest -- wave peaked in the 1920s, with KKK membership numbering in the millions. Following the second-wave Klan's dissolution in the early 1940s, self-identified KKK groups also built sizable followings during the 1960s, in reaction to the rising Civil Rights Movement. Various incarnations have continued to mobilize since -- often through blended affiliations with neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and Christian Identity organizations -- but in small numbers and without significant impact on mainstream politics.
The AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary Klansville, U.S.A. focuses on the civil rights-era KKK and tells the story of Bob Jones, the most successful Klan organizer since World War II. Beginning in 1963, Jones took over the North Carolina leadership of the South's preeminent KKK organization, the United Klans of America, and by 1965 his "Carolina Klan" boasted more than 10,000 members across the state, more than the rest of the South combined. Jones' story illuminates our understanding of the KKK's long history generally, and in particular provides a lens to consider the questions that follow.
1. How big a threat is the KKK in the U.S. today?
In an important sense, this may be the key question about the KKK and whether we should still worry, or care, about the Klan today. Likely for that reason, literally every discussion I've had about the Klan -- whether in classrooms, community events, radio interviews, or cocktail parties -- comes around to some version of this concern. I typically respond, in short, that a greater number of KKK organizations exist today than at any other point in the group's long history, but that nearly all of these groups are small, marginal, and lacking in meaningful political or social influence.
I might add two caveats to that reassuring portrait, however. The first is that marginal, isolated extremist cells themselves can become breeding grounds for unpredictable violence. At the peak of his 1960s influence, Bob Jones would often tell reporters that, if they were truly concerned about violence perpetrated by Klan members, their greatest fear should be that he would disband the KKK, leaving individual members to commit mayhem free from the structure imposed by the group. As Jones' followers committed hundreds of terrorist acts authorized by KKK leadership, his claim was of course disingenuous, but it also contained a grain of truth: Jones and his fellow leaders did dissuade members -- many of whom combined rabid racism with unstable aggression -- from engaging in violence not approved by the KKK hierarchy. In the absence of a broader organization with much to lose from a crack-down by authorities, racist violence can be much more difficult to prevent or police.
The second caveat stems from KKK's history of emerging and receding in pronounced "waves." Between the group's periods of peak influence -- say, during the 1880s, or in the 1940s, or the 1980s -- the Klan's fortunes have always appeared moribund. But in each case, some "reborn" version of the KKK has managed to rebound and survive. So, while today the KKK appears an anachronism and, perhaps, less of a threat than other brands of racist hate, we still should vigilantly oppose racist entrepreneurs who seek to exploit the historical cachet of the KKK to organize new campaigns advancing white supremacist ends. To me, this is one primary lesson from the KKK's past, and a compelling reason not to forget or dismiss the enduring relevance of that history.
2. Has the KKK had any lasting political impact?
By most straightforward measures, the KKK appears a failed social movement. Despite the Klan's political inroads during the 1920s, when millions of its members succeeded in electing hundreds of KKK-backed candidates to local, state, and even federal office, the group proved unable to preserve its influence at the ballot box beyond that decade. Later KKK waves have never been able to deliver on promises to rebuild this influential Klan voting bloc. Bob Jones' Carolina Klan came the closest to winning such influence, with mainstream candidates currying favor (sometimes publicly, and more often covertly at Klan rallies and other events) with Jones and other leaders in 1964 and 1968. But that effort appeared short-lived, with both Jones and the Carolina Klan all but disappearing by the early 1970s.
More generally, the KKK's commitment to white supremacy, most clearly realized through Jim Crow-style segregation that endured for decades in the South, has by any formal measure receded as a real possibility in the U.S. However, in less overt ways, the KKK's impact can still be felt. Recent studies that I've undertaken with fellow sociologists Rory McVeigh and Justin Farrell have demonstrated how counties in which the KKK was active during the 1960s differ from those in which the Klan never gained a foothold in two important ways.
First, counties in which the Klan was present during the civil rights era continue to exhibit higher rates of violent crime. This difference endures even 40 years after the movement itself disappeared, and certainly isn't explained by the fact that former Klansmen themselves commit more crimes. Instead, the Klan's impact operates more broadly, through the corrosive effect that organized vigilantism has on the overall community. By flouting law and order, a culture of vigilantism calls into question the legitimacy of established authorities and weakens bonds that normally serve to maintain respect and order among community members. Once fractured, such bonds are difficult to repair, which explains why even today we see elevated rates of violent crime in former KKK strongholds.
Second, past Klan presence also helps to explain the most significant shift in regional voting patterns since 1950: the South's pronounced move toward the Republican Party. While support for Republican candidates has grown region-wide since the 1960s, we find that such shifts have been significantly more pronounced in areas in which the KKK was active. The Klan helped to produce this effect by encouraging voters to move away from Democratic candidates who were increasingly supporting civil rights reforms, and also by pushing racial conflicts to the fore and more clearly aligning those issues with party platforms. As a result, by the 1990s, racially-conservative attitudes among southerners strongly correlates with Republican support, but only in areas where the KKK had been active.
3. Is the KKK a movement mostly in the rural South?
While many of the Klan's most infamous acts of deadly violence -- including the 1964 Freedom Summer killings, the 1965 murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, and the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald that led to the 1987 lawsuit that ultimately put the United Klans of America out of business for good -- occurred in the Deep South, during the 1920s the KKK was truly a national movement, with urban centers like Detroit, Portland, Denver, and Indianapolis boasting tens of thousands of members and significant political influence.
Even in the 1960s, when the KKK's public persona seemed synonymous with Mississippi and Alabama, more dues-paying Klan members resided in North Carolina than the rest of the South combined. KKK leaders found the Tar Heel State fertile recruiting ground, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the state's progressive image, which enabled the Klan to claim that they were the only group that would defend white North Carolinians against rising civil rights pressures. While this message resonated in rural areas across the state's eastern coastal plain, the KKK built a significant following in cities like Greensboro and Raleigh as well.
Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports active KKK groups in 41 states, though nearly all of those groups remain marginal with tiny memberships. So, while the KKK originated after the Civil War as a distinctly southern effort to preserve the antebellum racial order, its presence has extended well beyond that region throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
4. Why do KKK members wear white hoods and burn crosses?
Some of the most recognizable Klan symbols date back to the group's origins following the Civil War. The KKK's white hoods and robes evolved from early efforts to pose as ghosts or "spectral" figures, drawing on then-resonant symbols in folklore to play "pranks" against African-Americans and others. Such tricks quickly took on more politically sinister overtones, as sheeted Klansmen would commonly terrorize their targets, using hoods and masks to disguise their identities when carrying out acts of violence under the cover of darkness.
Fiery crosses, perhaps the Klan's most resonant symbol, have a more surprising history. No documented cross burnings occurred during the first Klan wave in the 19th century. However, D.W. Griffith's epic 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which adapted Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.'s novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots to portray the KKK as heroic defenders of the Old South and white womanhood generally, drew on material from The Clansman to depict a cross-burning scene. The symbol was quickly appropriated by opportunistic KKK leaders to help spur the group's subsequent "rebirth."
Through the 1960s, Klan leaders regularly depicted the cross as embodying the KKK's Christian roots -- a means to spread the light of Jesus into the countryside. A bestselling 45rpm record put out by United Klans of America included the Carolina Klan's Bob Jones reciting how the fiery cross served as a "symbol of sacrifice and service, and a sign of the Christian Religion sanctified and made holy nearly 19 centuries ago, by the suffering and blood of 50 million martyrs who died in the most holy faith." He emphasized cross burnings as "driv[ing] away darkness and gloom… by the fire of the Cross we mean to purify and cleanse our virtues by the fire on His Sword." Such grandiose rhetoric, of course, could not dispel the reality that the KKK frequently deployed burning crosses as a means of terror and intimidation, and also as a spectacle to draw supporters and curious onlookers to their nightly rallies, which always climaxed with the ritualized burning of a cross that often extended 60 or 70 feet into the sky.
5. Has the KKK always functioned as a violent terrorist group?
The KKK's emphasis on violence and intimidation as a means to defend its white supremacist ends has been the primary constant across its various "waves." Given the group's brutal history, validating Klan apologists who minimize the group's terroristic legacy makes little sense. However, during the periods of peak KKK successes in both the 1920s and 1960s, when Klan organizations were often significant presences in many communities, their appeal was predicated on connecting the KKK to varied aspects of members' and supporters' lives.
Such efforts meant that, in the 1920s, alongside the KKK's political campaigns, members also marched in parades with Klan floats, pursued civic campaigns to support temperance, public education, and child welfare, and hosted a range of social events alongside women's and youth Klan auxiliary groups. Similarly, during the civil rights era, many were drawn to the KKK's militance, but also to leaders' promises to offer members "racially pure" weekend fish frys, turkey shoots, dances, and life insurance plans. In this sense, the Klan served as an "authentically white" social and civic outlet, seeking to insulate members from a changing broader world.
The Klan's undoing in both of these eras related in part to Klan leaders' inability to maintain the delicate balancing act between such civic and social initiatives and the group's association with violence and racial terror. Indeed, in the absence of the latter, the Klan's emphasis on secrecy and ritual would have lost much of its nefarious mystique, but KKK-style lawlessness frequently went hand-in-hand with corruption among its own leaders. More importantly, Klan violence also often resulted in a backlash against the group, both from authorities and among the broader public.
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Explore the life and times of L. Frank Baum, creator of the beloved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Racism in Oregon Edit
Starting when it was still a territory, Oregon had several laws prohibiting both enslaved and free African Americans from living in the state. The first, in 1843, outlawed slavery except as part of a sentence for a crime. It was amended in 1844 to set a restriction on how long slave owners had to move their slaves out of state before the state would free them. However, free blacks were also not allowed to remain in the state, the punishment for staying being a lashing, although this provision was repealed before ever being enforced. A second law was passed in 1848 that barred African Americans from migrating into Oregon but allowed those already residing in the state to stay this law was overturned in 1854.  When Oregon was admitted into the Union in 1859, there was an exclusionary law included in its constitution that prohibited blacks from living in the state, owning property, or entering into contracts.  The 14th Amendment effectively overrode this law, but it was not officially repealed until 1926. 
Ku Klux Klan Expansion into Oregon Edit
With similar views of racism, white supremacy and anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant stances, it was easy for the Klan to move in to Oregon. The first member of the Ku Klux Klan was sworn in by Major Luther I. Powell in 1921 in Medford. During the same time, other members of the Klan were at work searching for new recruits across the state to add to their numbers and organize local chapters and klaverns. 
Early recruitment in Eugene was led by Powell, with help from local members and other associates of Powell, who would speak to the public alongside showings of the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation. In tandem with a religious revival in the area, they appealed to residents' concern for keeping foreign influences out as well as their desires for patriotism and morality. There were already over 80 members when a local newspaper wrote about the Klan arriving in town, and shortly thereafter the group would be formally organized under Exalted Cyclops Frederick S. Dunn, who was employed at the University of Oregon as department head of Latin studies. Members of Eugene Klan No. 3 quickly became involved in local politics, voicing not only moral stances against alcohol and prostitution, but anti-Catholic views as well, that resulted, directly and indirectly, in the ouster of several teachers and local leaders, which also coincided with the sudden resignation of Mayor O. C. Peterson, Chief of Police Chris Christensen, and City Attorney O. H. Foster. Additionally, many candidates endorsed by the Eugene Klan obtained local office in the fall of 1922. However, efforts to include the University of Oregon in their sphere of influence did not succeed, due to opposition from students, graduates, and faculty and administration, though this did not mean that there was no Klan presence on campus. The Klan was able to keep speakers and activities contrary to their values to a minimum several members had business ties to campus life, a few were alumni, a few more faculty and students. Even the football graduate manager Jack Benefiel and coach, C.A. "Shy" Huntington were klansmen. When the state legislature passed the Compulsory Education Act in 1922, the Klan's presence put Lane county among the 14 counties in the state where voters were in support of the measure.  In March 1924, the Klan joined forces with the local post of the American Legion (which at the time was led by klansman George Love) to oppose Peter Vasillevich Verigin announcing that he would send around 10,000 of his Doukhobor followers from British Columbia to settle in the Willamette Valley. Ultimately, after a rally against the Doukhobor in Junction City in August, not much else would be done due to the murder of Verigin and very few Doukhobor actually moving, and their eventual return to Canada. Other than the Doukhobor incident, one of the last notable activities of Eugene Klan No. 3 was June 27, 1924 at the Lane County Fairgrounds. They held a parade through downtown, with participants and spectators from all over Oregon and from various Klan-related organizations, joined also by the city band and another local organization's band. There were fireworks and a burning cross above them on Skinner's Butte, and they gathered afterwards at the fairgrounds for an initiation ceremony, lit by cross covered in red lights instead of fire. Eventually, after the resignation of Fred L. Gifford from his post as Grand Dragon, in addition to national issues within the Klan, Klan No. 3 died out in the 1930s, although the exact time is not clear. 
In 1922-1925, the Ku Klux Klan saw unlikely growth in Tillamook, a small county found on the northern Oregon coast. Soon after the rise of the Klan's presence in Portland, Oregon, the Klan was established in Tillamook. the Klan found lots of success in Tillamook. The KKK also offered recognition of many native-born Protestants who were not previously accepted in their society. The KKK was originally drawn to Tillamook because of the lack of external opposition and threats. While no klansmen were directly involved with local political occupations, becoming allies with the KKK was essential for any politician to succeed and get re-elected. 
The Ku Klux Klan's development and growth across America was widely known as the "Middle-Class Movement".  Initial growth in Portland, Oregon was fundamentally founded on this principle. The traditions of the middle class, as well as their populist beliefs, complimented the black exclusion laws that existed in the mid-1800s. In addition, there were anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiments present because of the populations of such groups in Portland and the surrounding areas.  Portland was not fully made up of middle-class citizens, however, and its political activity was often anti-populist. The Klan had a very deep and complex presence in Portland, and no membership records exist of Klan members in the early 1900s. During the months of February and April of 1922, over two thousand klansmen participated in induction ceremonies the specific number of Portland klansmen is still unknown, but the state was estimated to contain more than 50,000 members. Members of the KKK in Portland came from a variety of backgrounds including doctors, lawyers, businessmen, clerks, and many other professions. Mount Tabor was home to many cross burnings.  
The 1924 bidding process for the replacement of the Burnside Bridge ended with a suspicious winning bid the public would later learn that the 1924 contract was given for $500,000 more than the lowest bid. Having moved the bridge location to profit by selling their land, three Multnomah County commissioners were recalled as a result of the scandal, and a new engineering company assumed control of the project. The KKK had backed the commissioners and the enabled their system of kickbacks and grafts the ensuing "rotten bridge scandal" removed much of their clout even by 1924. 
Black Exclusion Laws Edit
Around 1840 to 1850, residents of Oregon generally did not support slavery, however, they also did not want to live alongside African Americans. As a result, section four of article XVII was amended to prohibit slavery in Oregon, and force slave owners to remove slaves from the state. Once in effect, freed male slaves could not stay in Oregon for more than two years, and a female slave could not stay longer than three years. Any free African American who refused to leave would be subject to lashings and beatings. Eventually, the lashings were prohibited in 1845. 
The Territorial Legislature enacted the second exclusion law on September 21, 1849. This law specified that "it shall not be lawful for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside" in Oregon. This law targeted African American seamen who could be tempted to jump overboard and swim to the coast to escape. Lawmakers were concerned that blacks would "intermix with Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility toward the white race". The second exclusion act was later rescinded in 1854. 
‘White Shadows in the Yard’
In his family, Kent A. Garrett Jr. ’63 is one generation removed from sharecroppers. Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he says going to Harvard was so foreign, it was “kind of like landing on the moon.”
Garrett was one of 18 Black members of Harvard’s class of 1963. After racing across the country to interview his former classmates, he anthologized their experiences in his book “The Last Negroes at Harvard,” published last year.
He tells me that Fred Lee Glimp Jr. ’50, then Dean of Admissions who later became the Dean of the College, called him and other Black students at Harvard “an experiment.” Garrett remembers a white classmate even “studied” him and the other Black students, dubbing them the “White Shadows in the Yard,” in a class paper that received an A. Racial hatred as glaring as cross burning, Garrett says, was rare — but constant indignities and less aggressive forms of racism were regular.
Garrett joined Harvard just seven years after the cross burning and says that no students had “passed down” the history of the incident to him. He never learned about it until he began work on his book. But the cross burning’s legacy, in the form of institutional and interpersonal racism, blazed bright.
While he was at Harvard, Garrett said, students had a willingness to associate with the Klan as a “joke.”
“It was the thing to do — to be in the KKK,” Garrett recalls.
By mid-century, an organized Klan at Harvard had all but vanished. Instead “KKK” transformed into a frequent racist invocation, a conjuring jeered at Black and Jewish students.
The “KKK brothers,” in a 1937 demonstration reported on by The Crimson, released “flory crosses, crudely constructed from paper but none-the-less grimly reminiscent of [the] real thing” to float down and around the Dunster House courtyard.
“Perhaps KKK terrorism is not confined to the deep South,” a Dunster resident remarked at the time.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Harvard students would sign up for or propose at least four separate screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” a historic 1915 Klan manifesto turned three-hour film. All were criticized as being shown without historical context.
One screening, planned in the same year as the cross burning, was canceled after the NAACP put the pressure on, which “disappointed” the more than 250 students signed up, according to a Crimson article at the time.
Howard J. Phillips ’62, elected as Harvard’s student body president in 1962, was lauded by “The Cross and the Flag,” a Klan magazine, for his “patriotic” ideological bent. Phillips publicly and immediately disavowed the Klan. But later in life, Phillips invited Richard Shoff, the former Grand Kilgrapp (state secretary) of the Indiana Klan, to serve on a lobbying group governing board with him.
In several incidents across the 20th century, including one as late as 1996, students saw KKK leaflets, threatening letters, and KKK graffiti on campus.
Garrett never mentioned any acknowledgement from the University of the challenges he and other Black students at the time faced.
“Yale and Harvard were intent on keeping their Southern alumni happy,” he surmised.
The Red Scare in the 1920
America may be famed for its Jazz Age and prohibition during the 1920’s, and for its economic strength before the Wall Street Crash, but a darker side existed. The KKK dominated the South and those who did not fit in found that they were facing the full force of the law. Those who supported un-American political beliefs, such as communism, were suspects for all sorts of misdemeanors.
The so-called “Red Scare” refers to the fear of communism in the USA during the 1920’s. It is said that there were over 150,000 anarchists or communists in USA in 1920 alone and this represented only 0.1% of the overall population of the USA.
“The whole lot were about as dangerous as a flea on an elephant.” (US journalist)
However many Americans were scared of the communists especially as they had overthrown the royal family in Russia in 1917 and murdered them in the following year. In 1901, an anarchist had shot the American president (McKinley) dead.
The fear of communism increased when a series of strikes occurred in 1919. The police of Boston went on strike and 100,000’s of steel and coal workers did likewise. The communists usually always got the blame.
A series of bomb explosions in 1919, including a bungled attempt to blow up A. Mitchell Palmer, America’sAttorney-General, lead to a campaign against the communists. On New Year’s Day, 1920, over 6000 people were arrested and put in prison. Many had to be released in a few weeks and only 3 guns were found in their homes. Very few people outside of the 6000 arrested complained about the legality of these arrests such was the fear of communism. The judicial system seemed to turn a blind eye as America’s national security was paramount
However, far more people complained about the arrest of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
They were arrested in May 1920 and charged with a wages robbery in which 2 guards were killed.
Both men were from Italy and both spoke little English. But both were known to be anarchists and when they were found they both had loaded guns on them. The judge at their trial – Judge Thayer – was known to hate the “Reds” and 61 people claimed that they saw both men at the robbery/murders. But 107 people claimed that they had seen both men elsewhere when the crime was committed. Regardless of this both men were found guilty. They spent 7 years in prison while their lawyers appealed but in vain. Despite many public protests and petitions, both men were executed by electric chair on August 24th, 1927.
Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s a culture developed within America which both feared and despised communism. This stance against the “Reds” only become diluted when America and Russia allied against a common foe in the Second World War.
White Supremacy and Terrorism
White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to others because of their race. Prior to the Civil War, racism and white supremacy had been common attitudes in both the North and the South. After the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union troops began to fight for the abolishment of slavery, Northern attitudes shifted slightly, and many felt that blacks deserved equal legal rights and equal protection, even if they were not considered socially equal.
In the South, however, white supremacists did not believe blacks should have any such rights. During Reconstruction, white supremacists formed political and social groups to promote whites and oppress blacks, and to enact laws that codified inequality. The Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1865) and the Knights of the White Camellia (1867) were secret groups, while members of the White League (1874) and the Red Shirts (1875) were publically known. All four groups used violence to intimidate blacks and Republican voters. Their efforts succeeded, and with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white supremacy became the reality of the South.
The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America
It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.
PORTLAND, Ore.—Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word nigger on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February 2015.
Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January 2017.
“They have all complained about being treated poorly because of their race,” Morrell told me. “It’s a sad story—it’s pretty ugly on the floor there.” (Daimler said it could not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman David Giroux said that the company prohibits discrimination and investigates any allegations of harassment.)
The allegations may seem at odds with the reputation of this city known for its progressivism. But many African Americans in Portland say they’re not surprised when they hear about racial incidents in this city and state. That’s because racism has been entrenched in Oregon, maybe more than any state in the north, for nearly two centuries. When the state entered the union in 1859, for example, Oregon explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders, the only state to do so. In more recent times, the city repeatedly undertook “urban renewal” projects (such as the construction of Legacy Emanuel Hospital) that decimated the small black community that existed here. And racism persists today. A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.
All in all, historians and residents say, Oregon has never been particularly welcoming to minorities. Perhaps that’s why there have never been very many. Portland is the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2 percent white and only 6.3 percent African American.
“I think that Portland has, in many ways, perfected neoliberal racism,” Walidah Imarisha, an African American educator and expert on black history in Oregon, told me. Yes, the city is politically progressive, she said, but its government has facilitated the dominance of whites in business, housing, and culture. And white-supremacist sentiment is not uncommon in the state. Imarisha travels around Oregon teaching about black history, and she says neo-Nazis and others spewing sexually explicit comments or death threats frequently protest her events.
A protester at a Portland rally against the reinstatement of a police officer who shot a black man (Rick Bowmer / AP)
Violence is not the only obstacle black people face in Oregon. A 2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland nonprofit, shows black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes, and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally. While annual incomes for whites nationally and in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, were around $70,000 in 2009, blacks in Multnomah County made just $34,000, compared to $41,000 for blacks nationally. Almost two-thirds of black single mothers in Multnomah County with kids younger than age 5 lived in poverty in 2010, compared to half of black single mothers with kids younger than age 5 nationally. And just 32 percent of African Americans in Multnomah County owned homes in 2010, compared to 60 percent of whites in the county and 45 percent of blacks nationally.
“Oregon has been slow to dismantle overtly racist policies,” the report concluded. As a result, “African Americans in Multnomah County continue to live with the effects of racialized policies, practices, and decision-making.”
Whether this history can be overcome is another matter. Because Oregon, and specifically Portland, its biggest city, are not very diverse, many white people may not even begin to think about, let alone understand, the inequalities. A blog, “Shit White People Say to Black and Brown Folks in PDX,” details how racist Portland residents can be to people of color. “Most of the people who live here in Portland have never had to directly, physically and/or emotionally interact with PoC in their life cycle,” one post begins.
As the city becomes more popular and real-estate prices rise, it is Portland’s tiny African American population that is being displaced to the far-off fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s center. There are about 38,000 African Americans in the city in Portland, according to Lisa K. Bates of Portland State University in recent years, 10,000 of those 38,000 have had to move from the center city to its fringes because of rising prices. The gentrification of the historically black neighborhood in central Portland, Albina, has led to conflicts between white Portlanders and longtime black residents over things like widening bicycle lanes and the construction of a new Trader Joe’s. And the spate of alleged incidents at Daimler Trucks is evidence of tensions that are far less subtle.
“Portland’s tactic when it comes to race up until now, has been to ignore it,” says Zev Nicholson, an African American resident who was, until recently, the Organizing Director of the Urban League of Portland. But can it continue to do so?
From its very beginning, Oregon was an inhospitable place for black people. In 1844, the provisional government of the territory passed a law banning slavery, and at the same time required any African American in Oregon to leave the territory. Any black person remaining would be flogged publicly every six months until he left. Five years later, another law was passed that forbade free African Americans from entering into Oregon, according to the Communities of Color report.
In 1857, Oregon adopted a state constitution that banned black people from coming to the state, residing in the state, or holding property in the state. During this time, any white male settler could receive 650 acres of land and another 650 if he was married. This, of course, was land taken from native people who had been living here for centuries.
This early history proves, to Imarisha, that “the founding idea of the state was as a racist white utopia. The idea was to come to Oregon territory and build the perfect white society you dreamed of.” (Matt Novak detailed Oregon’s heritage as a white utopia in this 2015 Gizmodo essay.)
With the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, Oregon’s laws preventing black people from living in the state and owning property were superseded by national law. But Oregon itself didn’t ratify the Fourteenth Amendment—the Equal Protection Clause—until 1973. (Or, more exactly, the state ratified the amendment in 1866, rescinded its ratification in 1868, and then finally ratified it for good in 1973.) It didn’t ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black people the right to vote, until 1959, making it one of only six states that refused to ratify that amendment when it passed.
The Champoeg meetings organized early government in Oregon. (Joseph Gaston / The Centennial History of Oregon)
This history resulted in a very white state. Technically, after 1868, black people could come to Oregon. But the black-exclusion laws had sent a very clear message nationwide, says Darrell Millner, a professor of black studies at Portland State University. “What those exclusion laws did was broadcast very broadly and loudly was that Oregon wasn’t a place where blacks would be welcome or comfortable,” he told me. By 1890, there were slightly more than 1,000 black people in the whole state of Oregon. By 1920, there were about 2,000.
The rise of the Ku Klux Klan made Oregon even more inhospitable for black people. The state had the highest per-capita Klan membership in the country, according to Imarisha. The democrat Walter M. Pierce was elected to the governorship of the state in 1922 with the vocal support of the Klan, and photos in the local paper show the Portland chief of police, sheriff, district attorney, U.S. attorney, and mayor posing with Klansmen, accompanied by an article saying the men were taking advice from the Klan. Some of the laws passed during that time included literacy tests for anyone who wanted to vote in the state and compulsory public school for Oregonians, a measure targeted at Catholics.
It wasn’t until World War II that a sizable black population moved to Oregon, lured by jobs in the shipyards, Millner said. The black population grew from 2,000 to 20,000 during the war, and the majority of the new residents lived in a place called Vanport, a city of houses nestled between Portland and Vancouver, Washington, constructed for the new residents. Yet after the war, blacks were encouraged to leave Oregon, Millner said, with the Portland mayor commenting in a newspaper article that black people were not welcome. The Housing Authority of Portland mulled dismantling Vanport, and jobs for black people disappeared as white soldiers returned from war and displaced the men and women who had found jobs in the shipyards.
Dismantling Vanport proved unnecessary. In May 1948, the Columbia River flooded, wiping out Vanport in a single day. Residents had been assured that the dikes protecting the housing were safe, and some lost everything in the flood. At least 15 residents died, though some locals formulated a theory that the housing authority had quietly disposed of hundreds more bodies to cover up its slow response. The 18,500 residents of Vanport—6,300 of whom were black—had to find somewhere else to live.
Men wade through the Vanport flood in 1948 (AP photo)
For black residents, the only choice, if they wanted to stay in Portland, was a neighborhood called Albina that had emerged as a popular place to live for the black porters who worked in nearby Union Station. It was the only place black people were allowed to buy homes after, in 1919, the Realty Board of Portland had approved a Code of Ethics forbidding realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans to minorities for properties located in white neighborhoods.
As black people moved into Albina, whites moved out by the end of the 1950s, there were 23,000 fewer white residents and 7,000 more black residents than there had been at the beginning of the decade.
The neighborhood of Albina began to be the center of black life in Portland. But for outsiders, it was something else: a blighted slum in need of repair.
Today, North Williams Avenue, which cuts through the heart of what was once Albina, is emblematic of the “new” Portland. Fancy condos with balconies line the street, next to juice stores and hipster bars with shuffleboard courts. Ed Washington remembers when this was a majority black neighborhood more than a half a century ago, when his parents moved their family to Portland during the war in order to get jobs in the shipyard. He says every house on his street, save one, was owned by black families.
“All these people on the streets, they used to be black people,” he told me, gesturing at a couple with sleeve tattoos, white people pushing baby strollers up the street.
Since the postwar population boom, Albina has been the target of decades of “renewal” and redevelopment plans, like many black neighborhoods across the country.
Imarisha says she is often the only black person in Portland establishments. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)
In 1956, voters approved the construction of an arena in the area, which destroyed 476 homes, half of them inhabited by black people, according to “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000,” a paper by the Portland State scholar Karen J. Gibson. This forced many people to move from what was considered “lower Albina” to “upper Albina.” But upper Albina was soon targeted for development, too, first when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided funds for Portland to build Interstate 5 and Highway 99. Then a local hospital expansion was approved, clearing 76 acres, including 300 African American–owned homes and businesses and many shops at the junction of North Williams Avenue and Russell Street, the black “Main Street.”
The urban-renewal efforts made it difficult for black residents to maintain a close-knit community the institutions that they frequented kept getting displaced. In Portland, according to Gibson, a generation of black people had grown up hearing about the “wicked white people who took away their neighborhoods.” In the meantime, displaced African Americans couldn’t acquire new property or land. Redlining, the process of denying loans to people who lived in certain areas, flourished in Portland in the 1970s and 1980s. An investigation by The Oregonian published in 1990 revealed that all the banks in Portland together had made just 10 mortgage loans in a four-census-tract area in the heart of Albina in the course of a year. That was one-tenth the average number of loans in similarly sized census tracts in the rest of the city. The lack of available capital gave way to scams: A predatory lending institution called Dominion Capital, The Oregonian alleged, also “sold” dilapidated homes to buyers in Albina, though the text of the contracts revealed that Dominion actually kept ownership of the properties, and most of the contracts were structured as balloon mortgages that allowed Dominion to evict buyers shortly after they’d moved in. Other lenders simply refused to give loans on properties worth less than $40,000. (The state's attorney general sued Dominion’s owners after The Oregonian's story ran the AP reported that the parties reached a settlement in 1993 in which Dominion’s owners agreed to pay fines and to limit their business activity in the state. The company filed for bankruptcy a few days after the state lawsuit was filed U.S. bankruptcy court handed control of the company to a trustee in 1991.)
The inability of blacks to get mortgages to buy homes in Albina led, once again, to the further decimation of the black community, Gibson argues. Homes were abandoned, and residents couldn’t get mortgages to buy them and fix them up. As more and more houses fell into decay, values plummeted, and those who could left the neighborhood. By the 1980s, the value of homes in Albina reached 58 percent of the city’s median.
“In Portland, there is evidence supporting the notion that housing market actors helped sections of the Albina District reach an advanced stage of decay, making the area ripe for reinvestment,” she writes.
Construction in Portland along the Willamette River (Don Ryan / AP)
By 1988, Albina was a neighborhood known for its housing abandonment, crack-cocaine activity, and gang warfare. Absentee landlordism was rampant, with just 44 percent of homes in the neighborhood owner-occupied.
It was then, when real-estate prices were at rock bottom, that white people moved in and started buying up homes and businesses, kicking off a process that would make Albina one of the more valuable neighborhoods in Portland. The city finally began to invest in Albina then, chasing out absentee landlords and working to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes.
Much of Albina’s African American population would not benefit from this process, though. Some could not afford to pay for upkeep and taxes on their homes when values started to rise again others who rented slowly saw prices reach levels they could not afford. Even those who owned started to leave by 1999, blacks owned 36 percent fewer homes than they had a decade earlier, while whites owned 43 percent more.
This gave rise to racial tensions once again. Black residents felt they had been shouting for decades for better city policy in Albina, but it wasn’t until white residents moved in that the city started to pay attention.
“We fought like mad to keep crime out of the area,” Gibson quotes one longtime resident, Charles Ford, as saying. “But the newcomers haven’t given us credit for it …We never envisioned the government would come in and mainly assist whites … I didn’t envision that those young people would come in with what I perceived as an attitude. They didn’t come in [saying] ‘We want to be a part of you.’ They came in with this idea, ‘we’re here and we’re in charge’… It’s like the revitalization of racism.”
Many might think that, as a progressive city known for its hyperconsciousness about its own problems, Portland would be addressing its racial history or at least its current problems with racial inequality and displacement. But Portland only recently became a progressive city, said Millner, the professor, and its past still dominates some parts of government and society.
Until the 1980s, “Portland was firmly in the hands of the status quo—the old, conservative, scratch-my-back, old-boys white network,” he said. The city had a series of police shootings of black men in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, the police department was investigated after officers ran over possums and then put the dead animals in front of black-owned restaurants.
Yet as the city became more progressive and “weird,” full of artists and techies and bikers, it did not have a conversation about its racist past. It still tends not to, even as gentrification and displacement continue in Albina and other neighborhoods.
“If you were living here and you decided you wanted to have a conversation about race, you’d get the shock of your life,” Ed Washington, the longtime Portland resident, told me. “Because people in Oregon just don’t like to talk about it.”
The overt racism of the past has abated, residents say, but it can still be uncomfortable to traverse the city as a minority. Paul Knauls, who is African American, moved to Portland to open a nightclub in the 1960s. He used to face the specter of “whites-only” signs in stores, prohibitions on buying real estate, and once, even a bomb threat in his jazz club because of its black patrons. Now, he says he notices racial tensions when he walks into a restaurant full of white people and it goes silent, or when he tries to visit friends who once lived in Albina and who have now been displaced to “the numbers,” which is what Portlanders call the low-income far-off neighborhoods on the outskirts of town.
“Everything is kind of under the carpet,” he said. “The racism is still very, very subtle.”
Ignoring the issue of race can mean that the legacies of Oregon’s racial history aren’t addressed. Nicholson, of the Urban League of Portland, says that when the black community has tried to organize meetings on racial issues, community members haven’t been able to fit into the room because “60 white environmental activists” have showed up, too, hoping to speak about something marginally related.
Protesters at a ruling about a police shooting in Portland (Rick Bowmer / AP)
If the city talked about race, though, it might acknowledge that it’s mostly minorities who get displaced and would put in place mechanisms for addressing gentrification, Imarisha said. Instead, said Bates, the city celebrated when, in the early 2000s, census data showed it had a decline in black-white segregation. The reason? Black people in Albina were being displaced to far-off neighborhoods that had traditionally been white.
One incident captures how residents are failing to hear one another or have any sympathy for one another: In 2014, Trader Joe’s was in negotiations to open a new store in Albina. The Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban-renewal agency, offered the company a steep discount on a patch of land to entice them to seal the deal. But the Portland African American Leadership Forum wrote a letter protesting the development, arguing that the Trader Joe’s was the latest attempt to profit from the displacement of African Americans in the city. By spending money incentivizing Trader Joe’s to locate in the area, the city was creating further gentrification without working to help locals stay in the neighborhood, the group argued. Trader Joe’s pulled out of the plan, and people in Portland and across the country scorned the black community for opposing the retailer.
Imarisha, Bates, and others say that during that incident, critics of the African American community failed to take into account the history of Albina, which saw black families and businesses displaced again and again when whites wanted to move in. That history was an important and ignored part of the story. “People are like, ‘Why do you bring up this history? It’s gone, it’s in the past, it’s dead.” Imarisha said. “While the mechanisms may have changed, if the outcome is the same, then actually has anything changed? Obviously that ideology of a racist white utopia is still very much in effect.”
Read Follow-Up Notes
Talking constructively about race can be hard, especially in a place like Portland where residents have so little exposure to people who look differently than they do. Perhaps as a result, Portland, and indeed Oregon, have failed to come to terms with the ugly past. This isn’t the sole reason for incidents like the alleged racial abuse at Daimler Trucks, or for the threats Imarisha faces when she traverses the state. But it may be part of it.