I live in southern Oregon. You know, Oregon – liberal state on the liberal west coast?
Even better, I live near Ashland, site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University, a notably tolerant, relatively diverse town (for Oregon), more inclined to active progressivism than sleepy liberalism.
And yet … this spring one of the Shakespeare Festival’s most accomplished actors, Christiana Clark, a superbly talented Black woman,was accosted by an angry racist on the street in Ashland’s “Railroad District”, a leafy area sprinkled with upscale boutiques and an ambitious coffee emporium. Clark is appearing as Horatio in Hamlet this season, has had leads in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among other main stage productions, accomplishments that meant nothing to the white supremacist who stopped her on the street and screamed, “It’s still an Oregon law, I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive and well here.”
Well, his legal expertise is deficient, but the Klan and other white supremacist groups are alive and well, in Oregon and across the nation. Portland may have had a socialist mayor in recent years and hipsters may abound, but the state and the city were founded as a white homeland; exclusion laws passed in 1849 were intended to keep Black Americans out of the territory. Oregon was the only territory in the union to be admitted as a state with an exclusion law, but Klansman have had their way in many other states that pride themselves on their distinguished history.
Founded in 1971, The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin, offering pro bono legal representation in civil rights cases intended to destroy institutions funding the KKK. Dees was the son of a sharecropper who worked his way through the University of Alabama Law School and established a marketing firm with Millard Fuller who went on to establish Habitat for Humanity. The sale of the firm provided Dees with the seed money needed to establish the Law Center. Julian Bond was President of the Board from 1971 to 1979, during which time, Dees and Levin went after the Ku Klux Klan by representing the families of victims of hate crimes. Records of those years were destroyed when the center was firebombed in 1981. In those troubled times, Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center established Project Klanwatch, an attempt to identify Klan organizations across the country. In the course of the next decade, the SPLC broadened its scope, creating Hatewatch which monitors the activity of extremist right-wing groups, presenting their findings in The Intelligence Report.
Starting at the top in the courtroom, Dees took on the United Klans of America.
The United Klans of America operated out of their headquarters in the Anglo-Saxon Club outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Led by Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, the United Klans of America was tied to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the murder of Viola Liuzzo in Selma, and the lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile. Representing Donald’s mother, Dees won a seven million dollar settlement against the United Klans, bankrupting the organization; all funds collected in their settlement went to Donald’s family.. The SPLC then went after Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, winning a twelve million dollar suit and after the Aryan Nations, winning a six-and-a-half million dollar suit, bankrupting both organizations.
A brief survey of the SPLC’s signature court cases gives some idea of the scope of racist, supremacist violence in the United States. They represented Vietnamese fishermen working in Galveston Bay who had been terrorized by sniper fire and boat burnings initiated by the Texas Emergency Reserve, an offshoot of the Klan. The SPLC won an injunction against the group and shut their para-military training camp. The next case was in North Carolina where the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were prevented from terrorising Black neighborhoods. Grand Dragon, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. then morphed his followers into the White Patriot Party, which broadened its aim to include undertaking a war against Jews.
The twelve million dollar victory over Tom Metzger and his East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance followed the beating and killing of an Ethiopian student in Portland. In Florida, the SPLC took on “The Church of the Creator”, an Aryan group preaching RAHOWA, racial holy war, after the murder of a Black veteran of the Gulf War.
Moving to South Carolina, the SPLC won a thirty million dollar settlement against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Invisible Empire, Inc. In 2000, death threats against Dees multiplied as he and the SPLC took on the Aryan Nation, dismantling their training compound now donated to North Idaho College as a “peace park”.
Although suits have been brought against supremacist groups in Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, and Idaho, extremist hate groups can be found in almost every corner of the country. The SPLC began a program called Teaching Tolerance which offers workshops, classes, films, and teaching kits and followed up with the establishment of Hatewatch, which reports hate crimes and organizations planning hate crimes. One aspect of Hatewatch is the Hate Map, now following eight hundred and ninety-two groups, including one in Ashland, Oregon.
Much was made of David Duke’s endorsement of Donald Trump and Trump’s seeming unwillingness to disavow the supremacist, but the campaign has done much more to agitate extremists on the right, many of whom have become vocal in their hatred of laws protecting the rights of LGBT citizens, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the men considered for the office of Vice President and an ardent Trump supporter responded to the allegation that Russia was the source of leaked DNC emails in a re-tweet that he quickly removed.
“The corrupt Democratic machine will do and say anything to get #NeverHillary into power. This is a new low,” he tweeted, sharing a link to a tweet from a user named Saint Bibiana (@30PiecesofAG_) who wrote “>Cnn implicated. ‘The USSR is to blame!’ … Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.”
I hope to God that the results in the general election in November do not set off what Trump advisor, Roger Stone, has called a “bloodbath”, but I do expect that reconciliation this time may be a difficult task. In times such as these we need to work together to support organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.