Idaho spends millions each year promoting tourism, but does very little to polish its human rights image, tarnished by scores of racist acts over the past four decades. Instead, the loudest, most effective opponents of hate in Idaho—those best positioned to help improve its image problem—have been unpaid, grassroots human rights activists. Still, many Americans, influenced by a deluge of media reports over the years, continue to associate Idaho with neo-Nazis, the Aryan Nations and the latter’s founder, Richard Butler.
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In moving to North Idaho, Butler brought with him his leadership role in a white-supremacy-based religion known as Christian Identity—a position he assumed with the passing of his predecessor and mentor, Wesley Swift. Butler didn’t move to Idaho to quietly retire, but as a racist-activist, living in the public limelight and using it to attract followers. To some extent, he met his retirement goals.
Turn back to 1973, the year that Butler retired as an engineer for a California aerospace firm. Like the “California flight” that followed him in ensuing years, Butler said he moved to North Idaho because of its remoteness and cheap real estate. He wanted to get away “from the mongrel masses,” he explained in one of his racist anecdotes.
BUTLER’S ARRIVAL IN THE NORTH
After buying an old farmhouse on 40 acres off Rimrock Road, and moving north of Hayden, Idaho, in 1974, Butler dabbled in the anti-government, anti-tax views of the Posse Comitatus and its form of self-styled government called the township movement. But for Butler, those forays lacked the white-supremacy-based fervor of the Christian Identity religion he and his wife, Betty, embraced above all else and brought with them from California.
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Woodworth-Ney & SmoakSoon, Butler sold half his property and established a crudely constructed church on the remaining 20 acres, making it home of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. Butler called its political arm the “Aryan Nations,” symbolized by a swastika imposed over a cross.
His church should be tax-exempt, Butler argued early on with county officials, generating media coverage and letters to the editor in his failed attempt to secure tax-free status for the property. Undeterred, he started officiating at weekly church services, opened a small school for his followers’ children and set up an office and print shop that spewed a wide array of racist religious literature, some of it sent to the nation’s prisons. He made it clear in various interviews that he was staying in North Idaho, part of what he described as a “territorial imperative” for white people seeking refuge from problems and crimes of California and large East Coast cities.
Butler didn’t always speak with eloquence as he attempted to publicly explain his religious tenets, sometimes latching onto current world events. Many business and civic leaders, and some politicians, said they were tuning out the Aryans under the notion, “ignore them; they’ll go away.” Experts who monitor hate groups say that was a strategic error: ignoring the Aryans, without open repudiation, emboldened them.
Butler was not only a racist, but an anti-government extremist who interwove racism with Christian Identity, the brand of racist religion that became his life. “The white race is Christianity and Christianity is the white race,’’ he would preach, ending his fiery sermons with Nazi salutes and the shout of “Heil, victory!”
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN IDENTITY?
In simplest terms, Christian Identity believers are convinced that the Bible tells them white people of Northern European ancestry are God’s chosen—direct descendants of Adam and the “true Jews.” That conviction and its accompanying religious fervor, history has shown, have driven many of its followers over the edge to criminal conduct and prison sentences. Butler’s devotion didn’t appear to waver during four decades as leader of his racist church; he managed to avoid any serious criminal convictions, even though the FBI and the Department of Justice were watching closely.
Butler claimed he was a man of God on a mission to save the white race.
By October 1980, handbills depicting a black man as a running target and the name of a Spokane rabbi were showing up throughout North Idaho—sometimes glued to campaign signs.
People asked: Who is responsible for this racist material? Where is it coming from? Newsrooms fielded those calls and reporters started asking questions.
Soon, the local clergy called a press conference, saying in December 1980 that Butler’s church “is Christian in name only and distorts and corrupts both scripture and history.” The distribution of racist fliers was bad for the image of Kootenai County, for North Idaho, even for the state; people began to whisper. The response generated widespread media attention as the name “Aryan Nations” moved closer to becoming part of the region’s vernacular.
The following spring, after that initial repudiation from local clergy, Butler grabbed headlines again when he and some of his followers were arrested for disorderly conduct at demonstrations in Southern Idaho. Later, even more press accounts described the American Civil Liberties Union promise of legal assistance to the Aryan Nations in a fight to use a Boise high-school auditorium “to promote the white race” on Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Then, in June 1981, a bomb blew up, damaging Butler’s controversial new Church of Jesus Christ Christian near Hayden Lake. Butler blamed his enemies. The bombing was never solved; but, because of the rarity of such crimes, it received widespread media attention. The branding of the Aryan Nations icon picked up tempo.
Later that year, after a gathering in Kansas, Butler’s church hosted its first Aryan World Congress in North Idaho. Only a handful of journalists were allowed to watch as Butler and his friends—neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other racists from throughout the United States—burned a 25-foot wooden cross on the church property as the highlight of the first, three-day “Aryan World Congress.”
At the time, cross burnings, men in KKK hoods and Aryan uniforms, guns flashing and neo-Nazis praising Hitler were a rarity in Idaho and the West. And rare or unusual events make news. The Spokane Daily Chronicle covered the event, but a columnist for a competing paper, The Spokesman-Review, wrote that giving Butler and his “two-bit fanatics” any attention was one of the “tackiest things” to occur in the region in 1981. Many people agreed, some even suggesting if the Aryans were ignored by the media, they would vanish. But those in the trenches of civil rights knew that was a myth; people needed to know what was going on.
Every summer from the early 1980s until his death in 2004, Butler and the Aryan Nations hosted the Aryan World Congress. Those annual gatherings attracted not only hundreds of Christian Identity believers from throughout the United States and Canada, but other racists known as Odinists, who believe their religious paths are tied to the Norse gods; National Socialists or neo-Nazis, whose focus is largely hero-worship of Adolf Hitler; and a ragtag assortment of anti-government fanatics and pro-gun types—many of them pulled from the ranks of Posse Comitatus. Some of those attending were arrested on pending warrants as they left the gathering.
THE NORTH IDAHO ARYAN COMPOUND
At his Aryan compound, where visitors were stopped by a “whites only” guard shack and crossing gate, Butler also built a cook shack and a bunkhouse. At media press conferences, he laughed as he made visiting journalists step on a large flag of Israel laid on the ground in a restricted-access area. In quick order, his Aryan compound became a magnet, attracting an assortment of felons as they left the nation’s prisons, where racist views are often formed and many times hardened.
In Kootenai County, about a year after the first Aryan cross burning in North Idaho, Undersheriff Larry Broadbent, the Rev. Rick Morse and citizen-activist Dina Tanners decided the time had come to form a human rights task force. The formation of that civil rights group rightly garnered substantial media attention; but, again, the presence of the Aryan Nations necessarily was identified as the catalyst for the new group.
The start-up of the task force was portrayed as good versus evil—a formula that would repeat itself in various ways for years to come with thousands of headlines, sound bites, film documentaries, magazine articles and public debates—all creating perceptions about Idaho around the world.
By 1983, some of the racists who met through the Aryan Nations decided the time had come to stop listening to Butler and instead embark on a “race war,” as suggested in The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a racist writer. They called themselves Bruder Schweigen (Brothers Keep Silent), or The Order. While Butler reportedly slept in his old farmhouse, the group used the printing press in his nearby church office to print counterfeit money, hoping to recruit foot soldiers to start the war. Later they resorted to bank and armored car robberies.
RISE OF RACIST DOMESTIC TERRORISM
The daring domestic terrorists carried out a string of headline-generating crimes across the United States, not the least of which was the June 1984 assassination of Alan Berg, a Jewish, Denver-based radio talk show host. As that investigation unfolded, the assault rifle used for the murder was found in a makeshift shrine in a North Idaho cabin. Again, fingers and headlines across the country pointed to the Aryan Nations and Idaho.
Talk about the state’s “Nazi image” was now quite audible, with out-of-state people, particularly those of color and Jews, wondering if it was safe for them to visit Idaho. Idaho chambers of commerce and the state’s business and civic leaders, for the most part, ducked the opportunity to publicly rebut these worries, and they festered.
From late 1984 through the early 1990s, there was a wave of domestic terrorism crimes—murders, robberies, counterfeiting and bombings—with suspects tied to the Aryan Nations and Idaho. The brazen crimes generated nationwide media coverage and concern. In September 1986, Aryan terrorists detonated pipe bombs at the U.S. courthouse in Coeur d’Alene and at the home of Rev. Bill Wassmuth, who had become a vocal member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. The following year, to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday, a bomb, later tied to white supremacists, destroyed a parked police car in Missoula, Mont.
The Kootenai County human rights group generated extensive media coverage again in January 1987. The task force and the city of Coeur d’Alene were presented with the Raoul Wallenberg Award in recognition for their battle against the Aryan Nations and racists throughout Idaho. But media coverage of those fighting racism still necessarily included references that burned linkages between the Aryan Nations and Idaho.
In 1988, Butler and a dozen other racists were federally indicted, accused of plotting the overthrow of the federal government. While the trial ended with acquittals and more media coverage, once again, the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho was identified as ground zero for many racist crimes throughout the United States.
In August 1992, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cross burnings like those carried out by the Aryan Nations are protected speech, a stand-off in Boundary County again put Idaho in the national spotlight because of extremists. The siege at Ruby Ridge—now considered an iconic event in modern history—involved Randy Weaver, who had briefly attended Aryan Nations events.
Throughout the 1990s, others with ties to Idaho and the Aryan Nations committed other crimes, including a plot to bomb a gay bar in Seattle, a brutal triple murder in Arkansas and a shootout with police in Ohio. In 1998, two wealthy former California businessmen moved to Sandpoint and spent thousands of dollars for direct-mail distributions of posters and videos promoting Butler and the Aryan Nations. The national media spotlight again turned on Idaho in August 1999, when former Aryan Nations security guard Buford Furrow went on a killing rampage and shot up a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles.
Idaho’s image couldn’t catch a break, even though people of good will made it known that racist extremists were only a tiny fraction of the state’s population.
Finally, about a year after Aryan security guards fired shots at a car on a county road near the Aryan Nations compound, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil suit. The ensuing trial in 2000 ended with a $6.3 million verdict and the eventual bankruptcy and closure of the Aryan Nations—again, with substantial national media coverage of Idaho and its problem with racists.
THE POST-BUTLER ERA
Now, four decades after Butler moved to Idaho, it seems fair to say his noxious, racist religious beliefs and the people they attracted—beyond his mere residence in the state—left a mark on Idaho and the region that’s only now starting to fade. Shining even brighter is the work of Kootenai County volunteers who stood up to Butler and hatred, and garnered recognition for a human rights organization that’s now a national model.
Butler’s death in 2004 and the razing of the Aryan compound eliminated the magnets in Idaho’s Panhandle that attracted racists for cross burnings and neo-Nazi parades in downtown Coeur d’Alene. Racist-related crimes that bring media coverage have dwindled, too; but, of course, pockets of racism persist.
Between 1983 and the mid-1990s, the Idaho Legislature passed five laws enhancing penalties for hate crimes and harassment. And since 2011, seven Idaho cities have adopted ordinances preventing discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. But few outside the state have heard about this progress for human rights in Idaho, and there’s evidence the image problem persists.
Potatoes? When someone mentions Idaho to residents of another state, their first response frequently includes mention of Aryans and neo-Nazis, not the state’s official vegetable.
Still, in the state capital, the Idaho Human Rights Commission has a very small budget, only enough to enforce equal rights laws. There is no money to counter the image issue created by the Aryan legacy or to promote the good volunteer work of various county human rights task forces, nor even the work of the Idaho Legislature. Another state agency, the Idaho Department of Commerce, gets a steady stream of funding from a 2 percent logging tax. But all that money, about $6 million a year, is earmarked to promote tourism—selling the world the image that Idaho has great hunting, fishing, skiing and whitewater rafting.
And Idaho potato growers pony up $14 million a year to enhance the image of the Idaho potato—everything from a $269,000 giant potato on a semi-truck for a national tour in 2012 to Idaho spud recipes on social media sites. Not a dime, it seems, has been spent to directly combat the state’s image problem caused by four decades of high-profile racists. No one is willing to estimate how much the image issue has cost the state or its businesses.
The state’s neo-Nazi image lingers, untouched by a counter-attack marketing campaign or even a public discussion of the problem. No wonder some people can still hear Richard Butler shouting, “Heil, victory!”
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.