As Americans look back 50 years to ponder the apex of the black freedom struggle that achieved the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, remote northern places like Idaho rarely register attention from the public or scholars. Some presume erroneously that such areas didn’t practice Jim Crow-like discrimination; others assume that regions with so few blacks simply didn’t generate racial activism. Indeed, Idaho is known more for its white supremacist groups than for its participation in the righteous cause.
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Granted, the weight of Idaho’s historical allegiances tended to be with civil rights resisters, meaning that Idaho’s poor reputation on racial justice is grounded in some truth, despite local wishes to the contrary. However, this trend does not negate the fact that clusters of Idahoans have arisen throughout the Gem State’s history to push for civil rights. In rare instances, they used confrontational protests; more often, though, groups conducted education-based campaigns that relied on teaching, persuasion and lobbying rather than marches or civil disobedience. Population size heavily influenced such tactics. In fact, the activism of black Idahoans is all the more impressive because some took action despite few numbers, considerable fear and sparse political support. See, for example, articles here on William Borah’s perennial efforts to kill federal anti-lynching legislation, and on Idahoans who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; also other essays from The Blue Review’s race issue in February 2013.
THE CHALLENGE OF ORGANIZING IN SMALL NUMBERS
African Americans have always comprised a small, stalwart part of Idaho’s population. Throughout most of the 20th century, blacks made up a mere .02 percent of Idaho’s total, tied with Montana as the smallest in the West. Latinos, American Indians and Asians each outnumbered blacks in the Gem State. This diminutive sum made protesting discrimination seem harder and riskier, for there is less sense of safety, power and hope when few bodies exist to mobilize behind a common cause. Additionally, in situations where numbers were small, black residents may have deemed it safer to avoid drawing attention to their ties to a black community or black culture, for whites generally feared, stereotyped and disdained blacks when imagined en mass.
White mobs could form quickly and turn murderous when such feelings were aroused. Therefore, a black person might try to find an accepted niche within the broader white community by subsuming or drawing focus away from their blackness. And once a niche was found, even if it carried the limitations of white prejudice, some African Americans opted to fly under the radar rather than risk losing what little they had on an overt protest gamble that stirred white anger and power against them.
As a result, organized demonstrations for civil rights in Idaho appeared less frequently and later than in many other parts of the West. Small population size also led blacks to favor careful and legal methods of confrontation rather than civil disobedience or provocative demonstrations of Black Power. However, by the 1960s, interracial coalitions had developed that added energy, mass and punch to local protests. And when these occurred, shocked authorities were often forced to think more deeply about race than usual. Many white Idahoans had mistakenly surmised that blacks were content with the racial status quo.
EARLY PROTESTS AGAINST JIM CROW
Systemic Jim Crow discrimination pervaded Idaho, as it did the rest of the North and West, inspiring some little-known efforts to advance black civil rights in this corner of the country. Although Idaho’s schools were open to all races after 1873 (segregation was impractical with so few African Americans), discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations was widespread and normalized. And, though I know of no lynching of a black person within the state, quick-thinking law enforcement officials averted several close calls.
Forced racial banishments also took place in Idaho, as they did throughout America. Whites drove their black neighbors violently from several small Idaho towns due purely to race. This occurred separately and in addition to the intimidation of Ku Klux Klan chapters that spread across the state in the 1920s.
Black protests against race-based treatment emerged alongside the earliest recorded accounts of discrimination in Idaho. These defiant acts usually involved individuals standing their ground when challenged. For example, in June of 1870, after passage of the 15th Amendment allowed black men to vote, one of Boise’s first black residents, John West, insisted — while well armed — that reluctant poll-workers accept his ballot. As recounted in news accounts from the time.
Likewise, in 1893, a black Pocatellan known as Colonel Steptoe challenged a vagrancy charge up to the state Supreme Court. Police frequently arrested black people for vagrancy to exhort fines, run them out of town or mark them as transients. As a small business owner and permanent member of the community, Steptoe acted to defend his respectability. The Pocatello Tribune covered the story extensively.Though he lost his appeal and then did jail time for shooting a gun while protecting a black prostitute, upon release he went right back to Pocatello to assert that place as his home.
Black ministers, churches, clubs and fraternal organizations also advocated for better treatment in the decades before World War II. In 1916, Reverend William Hardy of St. Paul Baptist Church led a small group before Boise’s City Council to request that several particularly racist scenes from the Klan-praising film, Birth of a Nation, be removed before being shown. The effort failed, and the film played to great fanfare that April at the whites-only Pinney Theater.
In July 1919, amid news of race riots and bills to segregate streetcars in Washington D.C., Reverend T. J. Ross and two others from Pocatello’s African Methodist Episcopal church purposefully tested the segregation policy at the Louvre Café. Despite its whites-only sign, they tried to order food, and then sued when refused service. Lack of a nondiscrimination law lost them the case; however Ross still publicized the injustice via the local newspaper. “The mothers and fathers of black American soldiers who fought to bring glory to the America flag upon the blood soaked battle fields of France [during World War I], only to be denied the common courtesies of an American citizen” was intolerable, Ross insisted, and “we propose to let the world know.”
Prior to World War II, an “uplift” strategy dominated group efforts to eliminate discrimination and improve blacks’ lives in Idaho. “Uplift” rested upon the notions that prejudice stemmed from whites’ discomfort with black culture, and whites would not grant equal rights until blacks reached a state of “respectability” suited to white sensibilities. Laurie Mercier, “Idaho’s African Americans,” Idaho’s Ethnic Heritage: Historical Overviews So local black churches and clubs organized debating and literary societies, hosted balls and teas, and became passionately involved in politics. Uplift programs also promoted the accomplishments and contributions of black Americans. In 1914, Boise’s African Methodist Episcopal Church performed the play “Fifty Years of Freedom” highlighting black history, while in 1926 black Boiseans sung the contributions of black World War I veterans through musical drama. Several black organizations were created during the early 20th century in Idaho to do the work of “uplift,” including the Afro-American Lincoln Club in Pocatello in 1902, Christian Endeavor society formed by the black women of Pocatello in 1905, the Boise Young People’s Social club in 1907 and the Colored Commercial Club in Pocatello in 1911. For a great example of the strategically-pitched rhetoric and approach of “uplift,” see “Y.M.C.A. for Colored Men,” Pocatello Tribune, March 4, 1911 Both occurred in public downtown venues, conveyed that African Americans deserved equality and drew broad audiences. Activities like these strove to impress local whites, while empowering blacks educationally, culturally and politically within a discriminatory environment.
World War II sparked the greatest migration of African Americans into the West. Though Idaho drew far fewer than coastal cities due to its lack of industrial wartime jobs, military airbases in Boise, Mountain Home and Pocatello brought hundreds of black servicemen into those communities. Several stayed and married. Between 1940 and 1950, the black population in Pocatello nearly doubled, reaching 1.6 percent of the city’s total — by far the highest in the state. Rising numbers correlated with greater activism. Black churches and NAACP branches grew stronger in Boise and Pocatello. These organizations monitored and addressed racial incidents. In times of heightened crisis, however, bolder groups also emerged to apply quick forceful action.
Neighborhood housing proved to be the most hotly contested racial turf outside of the South, and Idaho was no exception. In Pocatello, the segregated “Triangle” area where black people lived had too little affordable housing to meet postwar demand. Efforts by the Pocatello Housing Authority to turn wartime barracks into homes for black veterans inspired white resistance, for they sat beyond strict segregated boundaries. In 1950, when the black veteran Willis Evans temporarily moved his family into the barracks, a threatening note reading “Move out or be moved out on a stretcher” appeared on his tire-punctured car, according to the Idaho State Journal.
An apartment fire in the Triangle that left eight black families homeless earlier that year exacerbated the stress. White property owners and realtors, who wielded influence with the city council, blocked nearly every effort made by the Pocatello Housing Authority to improve black housing. The obstruction continued for decades. See numerous articles in the Idaho State Journal from March 1950 through the early 1970s.
Efforts to enforce rigid segregation and prevent solutions that might address black people’s needs compounded the frustrations of black Pocatellans over other segregated spaces, like the local YMCA. Whereas the national Y supported integrated facilities and Boise’s Y permitted a handful of local black youth inside (it later banned visiting black Job Corpsmen from nearby training centers), Pocatello’s didn’t allow African Americans in — period. In March 1952, the same month that black Idaho State University boxer Ed Sanders won the heavyweight Olympic gold medal, Willis Evans led a picket at the local Y. One sign asked, “Is the YMCA Christian?” Another stated, “Joe Louis, Ed Sanders… can’t train in our ‘Y’!”
Two young brothers whose family was left homeless by the 1950 apartment fire, and who witnessed the white community’s utter disregard, each carried signs. Their father joined Evans in creating a new civil rights group, the Pocatello League for Negro and Other Minority Rights. It promised to “lead a fight to obtain some of the minimum needs of the minority groups in Pocatello.” Their issues included equal housing, recreation opportunities, street lighting, sanitation services, traffic enforcement, job opportunities and YMCA access.
Bold assertions such as these seemed radical to Idahoans at the time. As Pocatello resident Fannie Lee (Harris) Lowe recalled, local residents viewed the PLNOMR much like people would later see the Black Panthers, even though the PLNOMR was comparatively tame. Though the Y changed its segregation policies reluctantly and in stages, the protest effort proved effective. The short-lived PLNOMR waged and won Idaho’s first group-organized black civil rights protest.
SEN. GLEN TAYLOR ON THE NATIONAL SCENE
Though less successful, but no less bold, Senator Glen H. Taylor (D-ID) tried to advance civil rights nationally as a senator, and as the vice presidential candidate on Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party ticket. This white working-class child of a traveling preacher sang country-western folk music for a living and embraced the politics of a Woody Guthrie. He secured a congressional Senate seat in 1944 when Idahoans still loved Franklin Roosevelt.
Taylor wasted no time in challenging Mississippi senior Senator Theodore Bilbo’s right to be sworn in in 1947, due to Bilbo’s participation in black voter suppression. And when the invitation came in 1948, he readily became Wallace’s runningmate. Taylor and Wallace saw racism and classism as entwined, advocated simultaneously for the rights of blacks and labor, and appealed for universal, government-funded health insurance.
As a Progressive Party leader, Taylor spoke with black civil rights activists, including the communist-tagged singer Paul Robeson. And when, despite bomb threats, Taylor flew to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with black student activists, he purposefully walked through the designated “colored entrance” in full view of the city’s segregation-preserving police force. Under the leadership of Public Safety Commissioner Bull Conner, cops threw Taylor against a wire fence (ripping his shirt), made their arrest, and tossed him in the drunk tank.
Taylor refused to pay his fines or return for trial. Instead, he excoriated the South’s segregated system in a speech that few Senate colleagues then dared to embrace. In 1950, with the onset of the Cold War and fears of communism, Idaho’s citizens dubbed him “red” and voted him out. Herman Welker won the seat as an ardent ally of Senator Joseph McCarthy and foe of civil rights. In 1956, Frank Church then ousted Welker. Church supported civil rights throughout his career and co-sponsored the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
1960s ORGANIZING IN IDAHO
Meanwhile, as the black freedom struggle expanded nationally, some Idahoans organized a push for civil rights legislation locally. Offensive “whites only” signs in restaurants sparked an interracial coalition of Latinos, Japanese, American Indians, African Americans and white people to unite in drafting and promoting Idaho’s Civil Rights law of 1961. Measures banning racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment were sweeping across northern states, and Idaho’s passed with minor objections. However, officials’ weak enforcement of the law became quickly apparent when Pocatello’s Motor Inn kept refusing bar service to African Americans, and a local judge ruled in favor of the Inn.
Because Pocatello’s NAACP officers who came to investigate the refusals included one white person, and because they were all denied service, the judge said the bar had not discriminated based upon race. This blatant subterfuge of justice led to the formation of the interracial Pocatello Committee on Civil Rights. It adopted a bold plan to educate its town about the new law and encourage voluntary compliance. The incident is reported in the Idaho State Journal on July 23, 1961. Such efforts helped get most restrictive signs in that area removed. And they inspired Pocatello to pass the first fair employment resolution of any city in Idaho in 1963. However, this strategy only worked with whites who were open to education and persuasion.
Authorities did little to investigate rampant discrimination or force reluctant whites to obey what proved to be a weak law in practice. Their typical method of addressing complaints of racism was to send an educational warning letter to the offender, rather than levy fines or make arrests. Frustration festered within minority populations as job and housing discrimination flourished.
As the national civil rights movement escalated in the 1960s, pushing for federal legislation to ban discrimination in public accommodations, employment, voting and housing, some Idaho organizations lent support to the cause. In addition to Idaho’s black congregations, several mainline Protestant churches openly advocated for civil rights. Rev. James Hubbard of St. Paul’s in Boise became an outspoken advocate for the expansion of civil rights in Idaho. These included Wright Congregational and St. Michael’s Episcopal churches in Boise, Boone Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, and Trinity Episcopal Church in Pocatello. St. John’s (Boise) and St. Anthony’s (Pocatello) Catholic communities did as well. Chapters of the League of Women Voters in Boise and Pocatello worked passionately for racial justice in Idaho. So, too, did Boise’s YWCA, which sponsored interracial clubs and events when few other places would and opened their building to groups planning civil rights activism.
THE 1968 RALLY AT THE CAPITOL
Outrage at the governor’s office for its reluctance to lower the flag following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968 led to Boise’s first major civil rights protest on the Capitol’s steps.See Diane Alters, “What it’s like to be black in Boise,” Intermountain Observer, June 14, 1969. It drew about 700 people, though fear of retaliation by white employers prevented many African Americans from attending. There, black leaders called for a tougher civil rights law and creation of an Idaho Human Rights Commission to enforce it. A new group of mostly blacks and whites, called Citizens for Civic Unity, crafted and pushed such legislation. Like the Pocatello Committee on Civil Rights, it also set out to educate locals by launching racial dialogue groups — an activity the local John Birch society called communist.
Given existing mandates in the federal government’s 1964 Civil Rights Act, Idaho’s version passed in 1969. However the legislature weakened the new commission’s structure in the process, providing it with no independent power to prosecute violations. See also Sam Day, “Rights Commission is a Farce,” editorial, Intermountain Observer, June 28, 1969
Through the skilled and dedicated leadership of directors like Marilyn Shuler, who served from 1978 to 1998, the commission leveraged its remaining powers of persuasion, education, settlement-making and coalition-building to advocate for human rights. Federal civil rights laws, combined with an embrace of diverse hiring practices by certain Idaho businesses like Hewlett-Packard, also aided Idaho’s growing compliance with civil rights protections.
In another progressive step, Pocatellans voted Les Purce onto City Council in 1973, making him Idaho’s first black elected official. As the son of longtime civil rights activists John and Idaho Purce, he was well known in the broader community. In 1976, he became mayor.
ARYANS INSPIRE A MOVEMENT
The Aryan Nations’ emergence in Hayden Lake in 1977, its escalating violence in the 1980s, and the resulting racist image Idaho incurred in the national media, inspired the birth of Idaho’s first real human rights movement. County-based human rights task forces formed; these joined with local NAACP chapters, the Idaho Human Rights Commission and various Latino, American Indian and student organizations to produce a grassroots tidal wave that both compelled a reluctant legislature to pass Martin Luther King Jr. – Idaho Human Rights Day in 1990 and countered Aryan Nations’ messages until a law suit bankrupted the outfit in 2001. See the author’s “Idaho’s Aryan Education: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Racial Politics” in Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 102:4 (Fall 2011): 159-177.
Extreme and violent acts of media-hungry white supremacists, combined with bad press that hurt tourism and business, stimulated the coalescence of numbers behind a human rights agenda. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, by 2000, Idaho had 70 separate human rights organizations operating in the state. Additionally, between 1995 and 2005, the Idaho Black History Museum, Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and the Human Rights Education Center each opened in Boise, while the Human Rights Education Institute was established in Coeur d’Alene. These all emerged in the wake of battles with the Aryan Nations to provide permanent ongoing outreach for human rights.
Despite being Idaho’s smallest minority group, African Americans provided early and consistent pressure throughout the state’s history for civil rights protections. In coalition with others of like mind — and through time and determination — these efforts eventually flowered into an interracial human rights movement that advanced statewide progress and awareness.
National commemorations noting the courage and perseverance of civil rights activists will continue to pepper the media over the next year. While these understandably focus on the segregated South — with its particularly violent and virulent forms of racism — discrimination and civil rights activism infused the entire nation, Idaho included. Adding that element to our historical memory defuses assumptions that the movement had little relevance for or impact upon the Mountain West.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.