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Predjudice is timeless, and often lethal

Bigotry — thy name is legion.

It is many, and it is a sickness, an infection of mind and body. Its fever rages throughout human history, taking many forms, often religious and racial.

The fever coursed through the anti-Islamic video seen recently in Muslim homes, and in the predictable violent reactions against the American consulate in Benghazi. There, as often the case, the fever led to death.

Oregonians would like to think of themselves as a tolerant people untouched by the fever of bigotry. By and large that’s true. But the Oregon Constitution initially forbade the entry of both slaves and free blacks. And our history shows a much darker side, an infection, that we forget at our peril.

Forest Grove, like many Oregon cities, has been infected for some time. In 1923 there was a KKK gathering in the Knights of Pythias hall. Accompanied by a band playing patriotic hymns, several hundred klansmen drove through downtown, flaming red crosses on their cars, amazing the crowds lining the streets. Some boys threw eggs. The News-Times reported the incident with a bemused tolerance and a mild rebuke to the boys for not respecting a lawful parade.

Not then or later was there recognition that the KKK had become one of the most bigoted and dangerous organizations ever to infect the state and country. This blindness affected many of the state’s papers, the reason being, perhaps, that the majority of klansmen, according to recent research, were your neighbors — the bankers, the lawyers, the mayors, and other middle-class folk. Some 14,000 klansmen resided in the state in the 1920s.

Twenty-five years later (Dec. 13, 1948, to be exact) a fiery 8-foot cross lit up the dark sky on Pacific’s campus just south of McCormick Hall. Near the flaming cross was a sign reading “Klu (Ku misspelled) Klux Klan” and a warning, “Clean the Campus.” A skull and cross bones drove home the warning.

More than 60 years later a local citizen, who’d been a student in 1948, told me the burning cross was a warning to his roommate, an African American who was dating a young white lady. The young man was terrified, knowing full well the violence that often accompanied burning KKK crosses. Again, the News-Times reported the incident without comment.

The Klan in the ‘20s was also violently anti-Catholic, and its speakers poured out their venom in city after city to crowds of approving listeners. One of their most notorious statewide accomplishments was the passage of a compulsory public schools initiative that made private, mainly Catholic, schools illegal. Several years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the initiative was unconstitutional.

Today’s political campaigns give rise to the bigotry of the president’s race and his challenger’s religion. Immigration issues, as in the past, inflame both national and local debates. We forget that we are all immigrants, aliens, to the original inhabitants from whom we wrested the land, often violently, all the while labeling them an inferior race.

In these days of mourning and remembering the 9/ll and consulate victims, I believe we honor those victims best by combating the fever of bigotry wherever it appears.

And that starts at home. In America. In Oregon. In Forest Grove.



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