By Cassandra Devereaux
Coeur d’Alene,the largest city in Northern Idaho, is set in truly breathtaking country. It’s on a lake that shares its name to the south, and another lake to the east. To the east, west, and south of the lake are miles of evergreen trees. A thirty-minute drive will take you to Spokane, Washington. Just outside of city limits, on Hayden Lake to the northeast, is a grimmer landmark: the former compound of the Aryan Nations. This is Coeur d’Alene where 31 fascists were recently apprehended attempting to attack a local Pride celebration.
The Pacific Northwest has a long history of white supremacy. In 1843, years prior to the U.S. Civil War, Oregon to the west of Idaho rejected chattel slavery (while reaffirming prison slavery). However, due to fears that runaway and otherwise freed enslaved people would move there, in 1844 the state government passed the first of a series of their Black exclusion laws. The first such law affirmed the ban on chattel slavery while also decreeing that all Black men must leave the state within two years, and all other Black people a year later. The penalty for failing to leave by the deadline was the whip and expulsion. Late that year, the law was extended to allow a freed enslaved person to be sold in Oregon if the person who ‘bought’ them entered a contract with the state. That was conditional on the promise the enslaved be removed from Oregon at the end of said contract. Slavery was legal again. A subsequent 1849 law laid bare the fears that drove these laws. Describing this law to Congress, one delegate said:
“The negroes associate with the Indians and intermarry, and, if their free ingress is encouraged or allowed, there would a relationship spring up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensue inimical to the whites; and the Indians being led on by the negro who is better acquainted with the customs, language, and manners of the whites, than the Indian, these savages would become much more formidable than they otherwise would, and long and bloody wars would be the fruits of the commingling of the races.”
As is always the case with the far right and white supremacists, they feared solidarity between oppressed peoples.
By 1850, the Black population of the state was under 50. In 1857, Oregon voted for statehood, and article 35 to the Oregon constitution was passed to amend the state’s bill of rights. By 1860, the Black population had increased from under 50 to only 75. As of 2016, Oregon is a little over 85% white.
Article 35 read,
“No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.”
In other words, the government wanted a white supremacist ethnostate.
Although invalidated by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, this article remained on the books for an additional 58 years.
In the area around the modern cities of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Spokane, Washington the Coeur d’Alene war was fought in 1858. Indigenous nations resisted being displaced onto reservations and fought back against the encroaching power of the U.S. Army and the industrialists whose whims they served. A thousand Skitswish (called the Coeur d’Alene by white people), Spokane, and Palouse warriors defeated U.S. troops in the Battle of Four Lakes. Colonel George Wright responded in force, defeating the indigenous alliance. The army committed the mass hanging of 17 indigenous people, including Chief Qualchan of the Yakima, along a river that became known as Hangman’s Creek. A historical marker at the site notes this history, reducing the number hanged by 10 and claiming that the hangings brought peace. As had happened so often since Europeans colonized the continent, indigenous blood was spilled on their own land by white soldiers to forward the genocidal and imperialist project of manifest destiny and white rule.
By the early 20th century, the newly revived KKK found surging membership in the Pacific Northwest. A man named “Major” Luther Ivan Powell organized the Washington State Ku Klux Klan and went on to successfully organize chapters in Idaho, California, Alaska, Montana, and, of course, in Oregon, where the Black exclusion laws were still in living memory. He found kindred spirits in anti-Catholic fraternal organizations, especially ritualistic secret societies such as the Freemasons. He brought many from these organizations into the Klan. He successfully shepherded thousands of people into the ranks of his chapters and founded a weekly magazine that spread Klan propaganda and filled their coffers.
Powell was so successful at his nefarious schemes that he organized dozens of chapters in one year alone. In Vancouver, he organized a chapter which he marched through the streets. However his personality was awful, and, even among white supremacists, he gained a reputation as a troublemaker and grifter. Canada deported him and barred his reentry. The Vancouver Klan, which he himself organized, expelled him and called on Canadian officials to deport him back to the U.S. He eventually returned to his home state of Louisiana where he organized a group called the Khaki Shirts of America, styled after the Nazi Brownshirts, and later became an organizer for the similar Silver Shirt Legion of America.
Although Powell left the Pacific Northwest, white supremacy remained in the extremely white region, where it still thrives to this day.