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Why Idaho's Racist History Matters: Part 2

Tom Davenport
AP Images
White supremacist Richard Butler uses a megaphone while leading a parade in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho in October 2000. The leader of the Aryan Nations moved to North Idaho in the 1970s from California.


Idaho Matters is continuing our deep dive into Idaho's racist history with Boise State University history professor Jill Gill. From Jim Crow-style practices in Boise from the 1940s and 1950s to the rise of the Aryan Nations in North Idaho in the 1980s and 1990s, we interrogate how our history of white supremacy manifested throughout the years — and what it means for today's push for a new reckoning of racial justice.  


If you missed the first part of our history lesson, you can listen to it here

Read the full transcript here:

GAUDETTE: This is Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. As the country continues to grapple with racial injustice and questions about white supremacy in 2020, we're taking a critical look at Idaho's racist past. We think it's really important to examine our roots so that we can better understand how we got here, but also what steps we can take to be a more inclusive and equitable place for everyone. Two weeks ago, if you remember, we took a look at racism in Idaho, beginning with the white settlers who fled the south during the civil war and took over indigenous land. We highlighted the racist attitudes of union miners in north Idaho. We lookedd to the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Treasure Valley, as well as the racial politics of Senator William Borah. If you missed that conversation, you can find it on our website. Just search the racial justice tab on BoiseStatePublicRadio.org. So today we are continuing our look at the state's racist past with Boise State University history professor Jill Gill. Jill, thanks for coming back on the show.

GILL: Hi, Gemma. Thanks for having me back.

GAUDETTE: Ok, so last time we left off around the 1930s. So I want to flash forward to the end of World War Two and the time when Black GIs were returning to the United States because that was a completely different experience for Black GIs. And what in particular do we know about these GIs who were coming back to Idaho?

GILL: Well, the World War Two brought a lot of airmen particularly to Idaho. We didn't get the wartime industries that the states to the west of us got which really brought the Great Migration and sometimes doubled African-American populations. But Boise and Pocatello got folks like went to Mountain Home, Gowen Field and the air base out of Pocatello. And many of them stayed in those places and worked. And they were part of segregated units. And they met people here and they engaged in the Black churches here and the other civic organizations, they sometimes got married here and stayed. So the environment they found here -- and in places like Pocatello, these airmen alone coming in doubled the Black population of Pocatello. So that was pretty dramatic. And they came back to an Idaho that really mimicked the kind of Jim Crow -- sometimes called James Crow -- that was popular in the north. So we didn't have school segregation here because there weren't enough African-Americans for that to be practical. But there were public accommodations segregation that was pretty widespread in restaurants, hotels. Playground equipment in Pocatello was pretty much off limits to Black kids. The YMCA was off limits there. Many theaters either kept Black people out or they had to sit in a special section. This is all in Idaho, Boise and Pocatello. Black people were not allowed to try on clothes or return clothing from department stores. There was job discrimination, housing segregation, which was rampant. So it was -- this is very typical with respect to, you know, the northern discrimination that these guys came back to. Yes.

GAUDETTE: And as we know, I mean, Idaho was, as you mentioned, very white. It still remains a majority of a white state. So how many people did these discriminatory policies affect? Because was it only focused on Black people or did we see this in just people of color overall? And if you could include a couple of specific examples, maybe from different parts of the state and what people had to deal -- I mean you mentioned, you know, like in Pocatello with the playgrounds. 

GILL: Right. So in northern Idaho, I know that the unions, which were fairly radical in supporting, you know, the white working man were very anti-Black. Senator Mary Lou Reed, longtime Coeur D'Alene resident and representative, talked about the fact that the unions kept Black people out. So as of 1970, there were only nine Black people, I think, that lived in Coeur D'Alene simply because they kept folks out. I know in across southern Idaho, both African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous populations ran into signs that said, you know, essentially no people of color allowed and they would use [inaudible] notations of that. I actually saw a picture of a sign that said we solicit white trade only. That's a direct quote that was on a brand new bar called the Cowboy Bar that opened in October of 1954, just a few months after the Brown decision. And it was in the Pocatello newspaper and the newspaper interviewed the owners that opened this bar and said, yeah, we want to advertise that we're a clean, safe, respectable establishment. So saying we only allowed white people in was the way to code for that. Most often there weren't signs. But I do know that people saw signs around just you just learn, you know, where you can go and and where you couldn't go. It was pretty clear. And you would get, you know, retributions if you if you crossed a particular line.

GAUDETTE: Can you talk about redlining? This is a word that's come up recently as Americans really grapple once again with systemic racism because it is still here. Can you define it and then share an example from Idaho during this mid century time?

GILL: Sure. So redlining was actually part of federal housing policy, and it worked in conjunction with local segregation policies to basically box African-Americans out of the housing market when, you know, housing was kind of one of the number one ways to build retirement, to build a nest egg, to pass on your kids and to rise up, if you will, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

So redlining was a policy that basically said if the federal government is going to back bank loans for housing, you know, that really cool 30 year mortgage, you know, low interest, no money down kind of thing -- it had to be in a neighborhood that was 'Greenlined.' And they use colors to codify whether they considered a neighborhood a good investment. OK, so the federal government is going to back that bank loan that is seen as a good investment. You know, where the housing value is going to go up? Good schools, yada, yada. Well, they used race to determine that. So a green area was a white area, just assuming that a white area is going to have all those qualities. If there was a certain percentage of people of color, the colors would go from yellow, orange and red would be predominantly a Black neighborhood. And if a place was red lined, it would not qualify for that federal security for bank loans and therefore banks would not give African-Americans those good loan rates. They would use gouging rates. They, you know, give them 15, 20% and, you know, had to get more money down. And they would do things like contract buying, which pretty much prevented most African-Americans from being able to safely and securely buy a home. And again, this is, you know, this period of time after World War Two that between 1940s and the end of the 60s was what we call the golden era of the American economy. There was no better time in America for people to be able to in some sense, you know, achieve an American dream. We've kind of lost that since the 1980s to that extent. And African-Americans were boxed out of one of those really critical ways. Jobs, schooling, too, was all part of that. So it was really insidious.

And not only did the federal government have those policies, but then you had realtor steering, which local realtors did. You had housing covenants. And these are examples I can give you from Boise and Pocatello, where, you know, the housing covenants. I have copies that I can show people from Morris Hill, from off of State Street that pretty much said -- and it was standard language that you would also find in California that nobody other than a white person can can live in this home or buy this home unless it is a domestic servant domiciled with the family that's a person of color, like a maid or a gardener or a nanny. So realtors combined with banks, combined with housing covenants, combined with these federal policies, were all collaborating.

GAUDETTE: And we should note, I mean, in Boise, I mean, there was a redline river district. And that is River Street today.

GILL: Yes! That's right. And there's a map there's a school map in the archive in the YWCA papers that anybody can get to from the 1960s. And it shows how effective it was because there's these little Black dots that are in the neighborhood and you can see all the Black families that were clustered there. There's a few random little Black dots, Black families that lived off of Harrison Boulevard up in the foothills and off of Warm Springs. But those were workers who served wealthy white families. So that shows the effectiveness of this.

And the other thing, housing segregation across the north was the key way for James Crow to operate on all kinds of different fronts. If you can segregate housing, Gemma, then you can do job discrimination because you have to put an address on your job application so people can suss out your race without even asking by your address. You can gerrymander school districts, you can gerrymander tax districts, voting districts. You can, you know, the zoning in the River Street neighborhood was zoned for noise and warehouse and industrial, whereas white neighborhoods were zoned to protect them more. And then you can do gouging, which is crazy. They could control the supply and demand if there's only a small area where Black people can live. And they did this in Pocatello in really vicious ways, you can create an overcrowded situation in the Black community because they won't let Black people live outside. That then you can couch them on rents and purchases, even though they're often getting a substandard place compared to what white people can get.

GAUDETTE: And then this goes into that whole idea of generational wealth. And you mentioned this in the beginning of this conversation, that it's this idea of you buy a house, you build equity, you know, you can retire, you can then pass that house along to your children. So then there is that generational wealth. Your child, you know, gets a house from you. You have something to leave them. With redlining, African-Americans, Black people did not have that opportunity, and I think it's critically important that people understand that, this was created to make sure that Black people could not build generational wealth, could not make their situations better. 

GILL: Correct. Absolutely. It's critical. And that particular time period, like I said, was a really vicious time to do it, because this is when housing values really shot up. It was a booming time economically, and it was a time that a lot of white Americans moved from the poor or working class into the middle class and then got to secure their places there and, you know, upgrade and again, pass on that wealth. And it goes along with the job discrimination and, you know, the discrimination with respect to schooling and stuff to that are all part of, you know, improving your prospects in life. So you bet you can put a dollar sign on all of this. And it was done through a series of local, state and federal policy.

GAUDETTE: Let's move into the 1960s when the civil rights movement was happening and there was a resistance to it in Idaho, correct?

GILL: Yes, there sure was.

GAUDETTE: Can you talk a little bit about about what we were seeing? And part of it was the people that were frankly starting to to visit the area in particular, you know, Aryan Nation founder, Richard Butler.

GILL: Yeah, he was probably our most infamous white flighter. Right. So he and his wife, Betty, were flying up here and they had a private plane. He was a millionaire by his mid 50s from Lockheed. And they were coming up vacationing, from what I can tell, in Idaho in the late 60s. They eventually bought land in 1974. But, yeah, he's up, you know, hunting and fishing and talking to people in the Albertson's and the Stinkers Station. I mean, they knew I know pretty well before they bought land up here. And yeah, I think one of the reasons that he bought land up here in 1974, build this compound and started the Aryan Nations by the late 70s, is he gambled on the fact that in addition to, you know, having liberal gun laws and cheap land and a kind of a live and let live atmosphere what she wanted and it was sort of isolated, he also gambled that Idahoans were on his side of middle. They weren't as extreme as him. But, you know, when he's talking to people casually, he's picking up on -- race was his number one subject. He was already a white supremacist. He belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian when he was down in Southern California. So he's insuring, you know, he's putting his toe in the water. And what he was hearing gave him a sense that this would be a place, at least, like I said, be on his side of middle and he'd have a you know, probably a if not a hands off atmosphere, there would be some people that might be open to his message. And I think, you know, I have seen in the letters that came from all across Idaho, massive numbers of letters that your listeners can look at that were mailed to Frank Church. All his constituent mail is in the special collections at which State University or if you're up in northern Idaho, you can look at Compton White's mail up at the University of Idaho. I looked at every single piece of mail they got on the civil rights bill of 1964, which was designed to end segregation in public accommodations and job discrimination. And Frank Church, he was a co-sponsor of it, didn't think that Idahoans would get whipped up about it because there were so few African-Americans and so on. It's not going to impact the state greatly. But they did get whipped up. And he said his mail was running ten to one against the bill at one point. And there's just, you know, huge boxes of this stuff. I did my own poll and I got about over 70 percent, between 70 and 73 percent against. And it was pretty strong. So I figured, you know, when Richard Butler is up, you're flying around and talking to people casually. He's going to hear those private sentiments because mail that goes to a politician, they didn't know that, you know, that Boise State is going to save that stuff. But they thought they were giving a private audience, being able to give their two cents to their elected officials. So it was not friendly. And there were actually huge organizations in Boise that came out against the civil rights bill of 1964. The Idaho Farm Bureau ran a letter writing campaign against it. So they used the Idaho Farm Bureau affiliates to campaign and lobby against the bill. The Haley Kimberly in Sandpoint Chambers of Commerce were against it. The Gooding JCs, the Canyon County Republican Booster Club, the Sun Valley Women and Professional Women's Club was against it. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was officially against it and I could go on. And it also cuts across class workers, doctors and lawyers against it all around the state.

GAUDETTE: So then we get to what, at least in the last maybe 30, 40 years that Idaho has become infamous for and that was the Aryan Nations. And, you know, this idea that Idaho was, if you're a white supremacist, come to Idaho. And how does that play into the bigger story of racism in Idaho? Because growing up in Washington state, I mean, you know, all I ever heard about was white supremacists in the Aryan Nations. And that basically that was my idea of Idaho.

GILL: Yeah, that's right. And in some sense, that's where we think the story begins and ends with racism. We treat the bad image that Idaho did get nationally because of the Aryan Nations -- they got a lot of press back in the East Coast newspapers. We treat treated as a PR problem. But when you look at it historically and you stand back, there are waves of white flight that come in to Idaho. And they proceeded and they've also come after the Aryan Nations. And so we talked about the Confederates that were fleeing, looking at the Pacific Northwest, you know, last time we were together that that was a fairly white place for, quote, free labor, which was coded as white. Those waves continue. And as time moves forward, eventually, you know, it was always Washington, Oregon and Idaho that were sort of seen that way, Montana as well. But as the I-5 corridor diversifies and that starts with World War Two, with these wartime industries that are shipbuilding and airplane building and so on. A lot of African-Americans moving to Seattle and Portland, San Francisco and L.A. and eventually those population bases become more Democratic and they become extremely diverse. Well, the whiter regions of those states that are somewhat more conservative started to feel like the political base of those states are pulling in a different direction. But Idaho is still one of the most rural states in America and it's one of the most conservative. So if you are somebody who lives in Southern California, like Richard Butler and you see the Brown decision and the, you know, the Civil Rights Act of 64, the Voting Rights Act of 65, the Fair Housing Act of 68, starting to allow African-Americans and other peoples of color to move into jobs, schools and neighborhoods that they hadn't been in before. And if you're discomforted by that and you're harkening for a past of Leave It to Beaver, whatever. Right, Idaho is going to start to look very attractive to you. So we saw waves of white flight in the late 1960s and early 70s. Richard Butler was part of that, running away from that diversification. We saw further waves of it in the 1990s after the Rodney King riots in the south. There's one historian that called the highway from Southern California to Idaho, the white flight highway. There's a writer who wrote a book called Whitopia that talks about that the number of U-Hauls that were coming one direction. And then now --. 

GAUDETTE: It's still happening today.

GILL: Oh, absolutely. Richard Butler's been dead since 2004. He's buried up there in Coeur D'Alene and the Aryan Nations are gone. They were bankrupted by the Task Force on Human Relations and the Southern Poverty Law Center for $6.3 million in 2000, 2001. But yes, there's new groups up there. There's a Redoubt Movement. There's the Northwest Front that actually talks about the Butler plan, which is about, you know, reconstituting Butler's old idea that the Pacific Northwest would be a white supremacist or white separatist area with Idaho is the headquarters of it. They actually call it the Butler plan. And then there's another group called Road to Power. They're up there in northern Idaho and they're calling to white people who live in the west. Right. Eastern Washington and eastern California outside of L.A. You know, if you feel like you're being inundated by people of color, you don't like the cultural changes they can use the same coded language for White is that, you know, that owner of the Cowboy Bar did come up to Idaho where you can help us hold turf and you can have political power and an environment, cultural environment that is more like what you are missing and -- 

GAUDETTE: I need to cut you off.

GILL: Yeah.

GAUDETTE: And it continues to work today.

GILL: Yeah, it is working. The the great number crunchers at the School of Public Service of Boise State University, they do great demographic studies and political science studies and they have looked at the incoming migration from Southern California. You know, are we replicating ourselves or, you know, what is it? What does it make? Because you've got all these economic refugees, right? So expensive house --

GAUDETTE: And Jill, I have got to cut you off. We're running out of time. I would love to have you back on and continue this conversation. We've been talking with Boise State University history professor Dr. Jill Gill about the history of racism in Idaho. More Idaho Matters coming up tomorrow. Hope to see you then.

Have a question or comment for the show? Tweet @KBSX915 using #IdahoMatters







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Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.