Racism entwined in Oregon's history
The mayor of Portland is posing for a photo-op with the Klu Klux Klan.
His tie not nearly as stiff as his posture, Mayor George L. Baker stands awkwardly next to some of Oregon's most powerful men, including the city's chief of police, county and federal district attorneys and a special agent from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Besides them are two men wearing pointy pillowcases over their heads and white robes.
"Chief Kluxers Tell Law Enforcement Officers Just What Mystic Organization Proposes To Do In City Of Portland," reads the photo caption.
It's been nearly 100 years since the photo — likely intended to shore up the political legitimacy of the KKK's various Oregon chapters — was printed by the Portland Telegram newspaper on Aug. 2, 1921. Yet the experts who study Oregon's Black history say the sweeping protest movement of today draws on centuries of anti-racist struggle.
"This moment is absolutely rooted in the past," said Walidah Imarisha, a local educator, writer and public scholar. "It is part of a continuous pattern of resistance."
Today that resistance has become a nationwide uprising — unprecedented both in terms of its longevity, and the occasional acts of violence it begets. For local politicos, it's a tidal wave presenting a stark choice: sink or swim.
Unexpected resignations and sudden retirements toppled the mayor of Gresham and the city's chief bureaucrat following a letter implying racism in Gresham City Hall. The Multnomah County District Attorney did not retire suddenly or unexpectedly, asserts a spokesman, but merely moved up his retirement date. In the midst of Portland's protests, the public was introduced to its third Portland police chief in less than a year.
Activists unearthed remarks on social media that spurred recall efforts against the Oregon City mayor, an apology from the mayor of Estacada, and further scrutiny of school board members in Salem and Scappoose. Both Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and challenger Sarah Iannarone have faced calls to step aside for a Black woman leader such as primary candidate Teressa Raiford.
At times, the pace of change can seem unprecedented — a response to injustices just revealed. Dr. Darrell Millner, a retired professor of Black history at Portland State University, explains otherwise.
"Our racial hierarchy in American history has been maintained by the application of violence to non-whites," he said. "This history is not being discovered now. It's always been in plain view."
Millner connects the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers in 1991 with the in-custody death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25 of this year. Both events sparked widespread protests and ultimately social change — not due to the well-meaning intentions of any politician — but because both acts were filmed, Millner says.
"When you see that knee on that neck, in that very personal way, and know that that man is dying right before your eyes, it's very difficult for most people to ignore that," he said.
Millner said he believes networked phones and other technologies will continue to shape society, similar to the way that the interstate highway system facilitated the Great Migration of 6 million Black Americans out of the south into more prosperous areas.
Mayor Baker was far from the only politician to cultivate ties with the Oregon Klu Klux Klan, which claimed to have 35,000 members statewide at its peak. One year after Baker's photoshoot, in 1922, klansman Walter Pierce was elected Oregon governor.
Imarisha, who traveled the state as part of Oregon Humanities' Conversation Project, said many unpleasant realities of the state's history go unmentioned in textbooks and classrooms.
While watching their pixelated settlers die of dysentery in the "Oregon Trail" video game remains a virtual rite of passage for school children across the country, facts about Oregon's series of Black exclusion laws are less likely to be presented in educational settings. The laws, first passed in 1844 by the state's provisional government, declared whipping as a form of punishment for Black settlers.
"From the very beginning, we see the weaponization of policing against Black communities," Imarisha said. "It was a crime to be Black."
But the historian is careful not to frame the narrative as one of passive victimhood to oppression — highlighting instead acts of meaningful resistance.
For instance, organizers with the Portland chapter of the NAACP pushed the City Council to ban "Birth of the Nation" in 1916, a film that Imarisha calls "probably the most virulently racist film that was ever created."
The local NAACP chapter at the time was led by Beatrice Morrow Cannady, who edited the Black newspaper The Advocate. An affordable housing complex was named the Beatrice Morrow in 2018, and a North Clackamas elementary school was renamed in her honor the following year.
"I think about what it was like to organize in the 1920s in Portland," Imarisha said. "I feel the same thing when I see young Black (leaders), who are standing up to the police night after night, saying 'we are not leaving until we are allowed to live and be free.'"
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