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Martin Luther King day in Oregon walking on a road strewn with hate

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”- Martin Luther King

Doctor Martin Luther King
The King Center Archives

As we celebrate Doctor Martin Luther King’s legacy here in PDX, it gives us a chance as a city to take the inspiration that Doctor King left us; to turn a hard eye on our past as a city and a state and strive against still extraordinary odds to create a better place for our children. We as a society have become complacent and cynical, but today is a day for us join together fearlessly and to approach our society’s many ills with authenticity, optimism and camaraderie.

I often hear Portland referred to as a bubble. It sounds nice, a bubble full of free- thinking, kind passionate and egalitarian people. If one were to walk the streets of Portland they would find the trappings of misery, apathy, disregard and inequalities all around them.

To understand our present and amend our future we must look at our past. I have compiled a timeline illustrating examples of the racist, misogynist, homophobic and classist events that have molded our present; along with some of the strides forward for which our fore-bearers fought.

  • In 1832, a school was established at Fort Vancouver to teach white children and children then called Métis- a term which then referred to children of white fathers and native American mothers. The derogatory term more oft used for these children was “half-breed.”
  • In 1843, the first public school opened in Marion county. It was attended by only white children.
  • In 1844, a statewide law was written: “Be they free or slave shall be whipped twice a year until he or she quit the territory.” This was referred to as the “lash law” most Oregonians are still aware that such a disdainful ordinance did exist here. One recorded enactment of this law occurred in Salem Oregon. A Salem entrepreneur named Jacob Vanderpool, who owned a saloon, inn and boarding house in Salem was tried and chased out of the territories, based on the fact that he was proven by a court to be part black.
  • In 1850 the donation land claim act granted tracts of land to “whites and half breeds.” The law is the first to allow married women to own land in their own names, just as long as they and their husbands were all white or half white and half Indian.
  • In 1859 Oregon gained statehood, the Oregon Constitutional delegates guaranteed that only white males could vote in the state and Oregon became the first state to include exclusion laws in its Constitution.
  • Beginning in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants suffered regular persecution and angry mobs drove Chinese citizens from their homes in three Oregon towns.
  • In 1864, assimilation schools were established in Oregon to eliminate native language, culture, religion and Europeanize children, who lived in cruel and deplorable conditions that these schools provided them.
  • Portland does not pass the 14th amendment in 1866. It finally passed in 1868.
  • 1908 The court case Muller vs. Oregon set a precedent for labor discrimination on the basis of gender the court found:

“That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.” *

  • In 1911, after 5 unsuccessful attempts Oregon passed its 6th suffrage referendum and gave women a vote.
  • In 1914, the Oregon opened a branch of the NAACP. Marion B. Towne was the first woman elected to the Oregon house.
  • 1917 - sodomy laws passed included sterilization for “feebleminded, habitual criminals, sexual perverts and moral degenerates.” In other words, just about anyone with any handicap or mental condition, who could be described as lesbian, bisexual, hermaphroditic or transgendered, who was poor, had a record or just did not fit into the social mores of the era could be capriciously sterilized.
  • Oregon’s KKK rolls numbered between 10-20 thousand. Freemasons worked with the Klan to promote racist laws and restrictions in the 1920's.
  • In 1920, the age of sexual consent was recorded as 16 years.
  • 1923- WWI veteran Bhagat Singh Thind was denied US citizenship. The Supreme Court used a previous precedent from "Ozawa vs. US" to limit the term “white” to only certain Caucasians.

"The intention was to confer the privilege of citizenship upon that class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified. It is not enough to say that the framers did not have in mind the brown or yellow races of Asia." *

  • In 1924, Native peoples of the Willamette Valley and other areas now in Oregon State were offered US citizenship for the first time. Two years later, the exclusion acts were repealed and black and Chinese people were also offered the vote. Despite getting the vote in 1924, native peoples were still subject to laws prohibiting them from drinking alcohol until 1945. Signs outside bars read: “No Indians or dogs.”
  • Beginning in 1942, with presidential order # 9006 Oregon Japanese immigrants were sent to internment camps; in which they were held until 1944. Public opinion of Japanese people in Oregon was tarnished by the war. The Oregon coast was the only continental target that Japanese bombs reached during WWII. The city of Portland used stock facilities to house up to 3,676 people. Many of the confined were US citizens. Japanese people were not able to seek citizenship again until 1952, years after the war had ended.
  • Oregon repealed its longstanding interracial marriage laws in 1951.
  • In 1954, Congress terminated Federal Aid guaranteed by treaties to many Oregon tribes including the Grande Ronde, Siletz and the Klamath. 1.8 million acres were taken from the Klamath people alone.
  • Though the 1957 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education nationally abolished segregation in all public schools, the NAACP challenged Portland schools for continuing segregation in 1959. In 1965 Portland schools employed busing to ensure desegregation.
  • In 1968, after Albina neighborhood residents had several clashes with city police; the City Club of Portland published a document called “Report on the Problems of Racial Justice in Portland.” The report cited “deep hostilities between police and ghetto communities."
  • In 1973, Portland legislature ratified the Equal rights Amendment. The US has still not ratified the ERA nationally.
  • In 1975, the state insured education for all children with disabilities.
  • In 1988, a student, named Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death by three racist skinheads. In a civil case his family won 12.5 million against Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance. The group declared bankruptcy.
  • In the year 2000- Oregon voted to remove all racist language from its constitution.
  • In 2003, the Department of Homeland security was established. Racial profiling has become commonplace all over the United States.
  • In 2004, Multnomah county official married 3,022 same sex couples in five weeks. Then governor Ted Kulongoski ordered the county to stop. Later that year, measure 36 prohibited same sex marriage in the state. In 2005 the Oregon Supreme Court invalidated the marriages.
  • In 2008, a Medford family found a cross burned on their lawn.

This timeline is short and incomplete, but it may shine a little light into the foggy rose-colored intellectual bubble that many Portlanders would rather inhabit. As we move forward look with fresh eyes. Take action even when it is arduous.

In the words of Dr. King: “Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

*Via court transcripts

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