I wanted to be white for three weeks in 4th grade (1965) because I was being rejected, being the only black kid in class in my elementary school in Bel Air. After three weeks I realized, wait, there’s nothing wrong with me, it’s them.
My home training countered the non-lessons I was getting: Slaves were smart. Slaves resisted every step of the way. We were the slaves that taught ourselves to read, when it was a death sentence.
Therefore: Learning to read before kindergarten, reading at least three grade levels above where you are, trying to excel at everything you can, especially at the multiracial nation-building things black people have done before … know The Great Blacks, before you go to school. Because you can’t trust the schools to teach you all you need to know. Know about other people of color, too. A movement of multicultural affirmation.
Black Lives Matter erupts, emerges, evolves, from the same conditions that lead James Brown to write and record, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
The messages from mainstream society, despite assertions of equality, i.e. All Lives Matter, is that White Lives Matter More. Whitewashed historical evidence suggests the best thing you can do is adopt the values, including historical and cultural amnesia, and acquire the trappings of wealth and success. Emulate American successful exemplars displayed on street signs, buildings, tabloids, reality television, fashion magazines and school curriculum. To counter that, a larger story needed to be told, and the Ethnic Studies movement evolved from Negro History Week.
“I Too Am Eugene: A Multicultural History Project” was a project that broke the story of Eugene Klan #3, nearly 20 years ago in Eugene Weekly and through Lane Community College’s Ethnic Studies program and Rites of Passage summer youth academies. Cheri Turpin sat down with microfilms of newspapers, cross-referenced archives and found the Klan/UO connection, Klan membership lists and statewide Klan activities well past the purported death of the Klan in 1925.
In 1937, meeting in Portland, (reported in The Oregonian but not in The Register-Guard) the Klan claimed 16,000 members statewide and wanted Eugene, again, as its state headquarters. The Klan decided to recruit in law enforcement and again be politically active.
The Eugene Klan didn’t die, but embodied the Invisible Empire: political, news, business, education, law enforcement and justice system infrastructure. There is nothing to show that they weren’t successful or that anyone stopped them from those goals. Or more cogently, subsequently eliminated their influence from the businesses, organizations and institutions they inhabit today.
Post-WWII, the Klan focused on the growing black community, including cross burnings, at least one lynching and practices of legal and illegal housing, job and lending discrimination. In effect making Eugene both a redlined and sundown town. A place where skilled millwrights like Willie Mims’ father could not find work in the timber industry because of their race. A place where business owner Sam Reynolds could neither get a business loan for a new business nor rent or buy a home within the city limits.
Gathering personal accounts by black and white community members, Cheri Turpin and I were able to establish Klan influence from the post-war period into the 21st century. Since experiences affecting people of color are not regularly reflected in Eugene, the University of Oregon, The Register-Guard, can maintain the fiction that the Klan has been dead for 90 years. Institutional historians may use the standard that if we can’t produce membership lists, then it’s not Klan activity.
Even if cross burnings and lynchings occur, we can’t say it’s the Klan that did it. If a toy gun is treated the same as a real gun by the police and military, then crosses burnt on Skinner Butte, in front of the West 11th community, in front of a home on Friendly Street or a home in Springfield one week after 9/11, are going to be considered the genuine article.
The Klan is a secret fraternal organization that infiltrated news, schools, business, law enforcement and politics. Members learned from their past mistakes, but they could and did act through the institutions they infiltrated as “red-blooded Americans,” a Klan phrase indicating racial purity. Doing that, they could order the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent; order the termination of Native American tribes; question Latino-American citizens on the basis of race alone.
“I Too Am Eugene” activist-historians produced school, college and Rites of Passage curriculum, a historical bus tour, trained K-12 teachers and acted to make communities of color historically visible though the Wiley Griffon historical monument, renaming Sam Reynolds Street and MLK Boulevard. and through facilitating Talking Stones and other projects, because we feel as a multicultural history project it’s more than just a story in black and white. Activist historians operate outside of classrooms, books, curricula, into the community, to meet real human needs, not operate in some academic remove.