Last May, a white supremacist shouted racially charged hate speech at two young Muslim women on public transit in Portland, OR. Three men came to the women’s defense. The perpetrator pulled out a knife, killed two of the men, and severely wounded the third. The following weekend, a huge white supremacist rally was held in Portland. It erupted in violence as the police were seen provoking the rally protesters while protecting the “alt-right” gathering.
How could this happen in one of the most liberal cities in the country? In one of the most left-leaning states? There is legal pot-shop in every neighborhood. People have the right to die here. Oregon is a sanctuary state and a leader in renewable energy. Our governor is a bisexual woman. There is even an annual Portland naked bike race.
Pull back the curtain and you’ll find a different story. Oregon’s congressional District 2 is the seventh largest congressional district in the country. It voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Congressman Greg Walden from that district spearheaded the disastrous “Repeal and Replace” health care debacle. He continues to unabashedly push for the removal of environmental, health, and communications protections.
Yes, Oregon is primarily rural, which could be one explanation. The bigger question is this: why is Portland called ‘the whitest city in America’? The number of black people in Oregon hovers at 2% of the population. Why? Why do I see Confederate flags still flying as I cycle on the back roads of this beautiful state?
History tells the story. In 1844, before it was even acquired by the U.S. as a territory, the Oregon legislative committee enacted what were called “the flogging laws.” Any free black person living in Oregon would be publicly flogged every six months. In 1845, this law was modified: any free black person still in the area was to be offered up for “hire” to anyone who would remove them.
Oregon became a state in 1859, just prior to the Civil War. Before the state constitution was ratified, two items were put to a public referendum. Seventy-five per cent of voters agreed that there would be no slavery in the new state.
However, eighty-nine per cent approved the provision that anyone who was black, or of any mixed ancestry, was forbidden to live, work, own property, or accept any kind of contract in Oregon. This measure also included punishment for anyone who brought a black person into the state, hired a black person, or even let a black person stay with them. This legalized racism, which was in the Oregon state constitution until 1925, had a strong appeal for a certain kind of white settler.
Technically, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited this exclusion. It says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Oregon ratified this amendment in 1866, but rescinded that ratification in 1868. It wasn’t until 1973 that activists forced a reconsideration of this decision. Oregon officially joined the rest of the country on this principle only forty-four years ago.
The Ku Klux Klan arrived in Oregon in the early 1920s. By 1923, the Oregon Klan was 35,000 members strong in sixty local chapters. The governor of the state, the mayor of Portland, and chief of police were all associated with the Klan. It was reported that the Portland police department was full of Klan members. State, county and local officials were Klansmen. Many fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant ministers in Oregon joined or supported the Klan at its height.
Although the Klan faded from Oregon life after the 1930s, its shadow remained. Until the early 1960s, restaurants in Portland wouldn’t serve black people, the city’s swimming pools were closed to blacks, and black people were only allowed on the local skating rink on a certain day. The Aryan Nations founder, Richard Butler, identified the whole Pacific Northwest as the ideal place to establish a white separatist utopia because it was already in place.
What to do with this information? I’m not sure. We must face the hypocrisy of our nation. We live in a country which was founded on slavery. We now claim to be the land of the free, yet every state in the union, no matter how seemingly liberal, has a history of racism, exclusion or genocide. The Ku Klux Klan is now resurgent, as is white supremacy and white nationalism in all its forms.
We can rally, we can rant, we can try to talk to our neighbors. We must elect people who uphold the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We must support organizations that fight racism. And, every day, we must speak out when we see racism in action. Doing this cost the lives of two heroes in Portland in May. I hope it doesn’t cost other lives. But it is absolutely necessary to move our country out of its history.