Marilyn Shuler

If we think that just because we knocked out the top of the iceberg that we've done our duty and that bias is no longer in Idaho, we're dead wrong.

Marilyn Shuler

Marilyn Shuler was director of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights from 1978 to 1998, at the height of the activity of the Aryan Nations. Working with human rights task forces around the state, she denounced the group. In her position, she also worked to provide an administrative process for people protected by Idaho's Human Rights Act to address their grievances. For her efforts, she has received many honors.

Below is an excerpt of an interview Marcia Franklin conducted with her. Shuler tells Franklin that she first read about the Aryan Nations in Idaho in newspaper clippings, and was in disbelief.

Marilyn Shuler: Well, it was just so bizarre. I mean, I couldn't believe what I was reading about these people that didn't think that people who were Jewish or people of color had souls; they didn't see them as human beings. It was just so hard to believe that anybody thought that way.

Very soon after I first started reading about them I had contact with the Department of Justice and…they had a definite position that it was not healthy to ignore them and hope they'd go away, and I think that was very good advice.

Marcia Franklin: How much of a threat ultimately do you think the Aryan Nations were?

Shuler: There were at times in the early 80s a lot of activity that was going on that was very frightening…there was some evidence that they had the addresses of people that were members….of the synagogue, and it was intimidating.

These people, however, to their credit, didn't stop speaking out, and I just get kind of weepy when I think about it now, because they're in other respects ordinary people and they just became heroes.

Even though there were never huge numbers of Aryan Nations people, it doesn't take a lot of serious criminals to be a threat to the community.

So there's the actual real threat, and then there's the perceived threat. And I will never forget some of the people that I met who were very physically strong, had been in the military, maybe had been in law enforcement, but they were…African-American persons and they were very, very frightened.

And these are people who are used to dealing in dangerous situations, but they were frightened about going into northern Idaho because they weren't sure if they would be shot, and that is a terrible way to live.

Franklin: What causes people to join these groups?

Shuler: I think it's basically fear is my own theory, that they're afraid….there were a lot of social changes happening in a very quick time. They were good changes in my view, because I'm a civil rights advocate…but I think some white males found there was a lot more competition out there, and that was fearful for them.

Franklin: You've said that just because the Aryan Nations are gone doesn't mean the problem is solved.

Shuler: When Bill (Wassmuth) and I would talk about the Aryan Nations we'd always say that they were just the tip of the iceberg, and that most of what is really out there of bias and bigotry is below the radar. It's under the water and people don't see it and talk about it, and it's large. It's huge.

All of us….have moments in which we have to admit that we're intolerant of somebody because they belong to some group, or are different than we are, and that's a huge, huge issue.

And I think if we think that just because we knocked out the top of the iceberg that we've done our duty and that bias is no longer in Idaho we're dead wrong, because it's something that we have to continually work on.

During the Holocaust there were persons who were not Jewish who risked their lives to ensure that children and others were saved. And there was the question about, "Well what do these people have in common?"

They found only that they had been socialized in some small way to care about people that weren't part of their group. And it didn't have to be a large thing. It would be like maybe going to the store with their grandparent and having their grandparent give money to a beggar.

I think that it's important for us to continue to do that and to socialize children that way so that they will feel a connectedness to people that are not in their group and realize that they have a bond with them that we're all human.

I always get a lot of sense that children kind of get it right, that we kind of have to teach them to be biased, because on their own they're not that way; they play with all other children unless we teach them that they shouldn't play with certain children.

Franklin: Why was it important for you to help get the Anne Frank Memorial and Idaho Human Rights Center started?

Shuler: I think it was because as a community or as a state we really didn't want to have the image that we felt was not accurate. I think most people that live here don't feel we're better than other Americans, but we certainly I don't think feel that we're at the bottom in terms of being intolerant. And I think there was a desire on the part of people that gave money and worked hard to see that come to light that that be known.

Franklin: What was it like to walk on the compound before it was torn down?
Shuler: It was very sickening….it's a beautiful spot physically--lovely trees, and pastoral--and I felt very physically ill. It was a very creepy feeling. There was no one up there; the Aryans were gone. But just seeing the remnants of their lives…I just felt like there was evil up there.

Franklin: What lessons can we learn from what happened?

Shuler: Well I think what we need to learn is that it is important to speak out, and I wonder how differently things would've been if….human rights groups hadn't formed if, if the movement would've grown more violent, if it would've been a more fearful place for others to live.

I think that's possible and I think it's important to know that there is leafleting going on today and it's important that the groups like the Kootenai County Task Force are still active, the Bonner County Task force is still active. These groups are still there and they're ready to respond.

And one can only hope that law enforcement will continue to be supportive and to work with the citizen groups to protect people, but also to make it clear that even though there are only a few of them maybe and that we do respect the Constitution and understand that line, that if they walk over that line and it starts to threaten us in a way that is not legal, that law enforcement will be there ready to prosecute.

Franklin: Where there fun moments along the way when you were all together?

Shuler: I think the fun part was just the deep friendships that we formed with people because of the threat we were working on, and some of my closest friends today are people I met through that. We lived on low budgets most of us and…I can remember times when four or five women were sleeping in one motel room to save money because nobody had any money and we had a lot of fun that way.

Franklin: What issues concern you today?

Shuler: I do have a great concern about the Hispanic population in Idaho….I think it's our failure as a state to really be upset that the children aren't doing better at school, that there aren't more ….Hispanic children in college and that they're dropping out of school at higher rates.

That bothers me enormously and I think that we need to recognize that it's an economic issue as well as a human rights issue because the Hispanic population is growing much faster than the non-Hispanic population and it's a much younger population.
The available workforce (is) going to be more and more Hispanic, and even if people don't have a human rights bone in their body they should care about that as an economic issue.

And I'm thoroughly convinced that we can do better by Hispanic students; that they can succeed in school as well as other students. And I just feel more emphasis should be given to working hard to see if we can turn this around.

Franklin: Are there are other issues that concern you, for instance, providing protections for gays under Idaho's Human Rights Act?

Shuler: It's very sad I think when a person comes up to you and says, "I thought Human Rights Commissioners were supposed to protect us all, but I guess the Human Rights Commission doesn't think that people who are gay need support." And it's just a very lonely feeling for them and I hope that turns around and I hope that we do more as a state to ensure that persons based on their sexual orientation are not discriminated against.

Franklin: This is such a contentious issue. Are you optimistic that that can happen?

Shuler: It used to be not that many years ago that Japanese-Americans couldn't own property in Idaho; Japanese Americans couldn't marry somebody of a different race. We had miscegenation laws right in Idaho, and now we think "That's absurd, that's ridiculous; how could anybody with their right mind not let a Japanese-American own property in our state?"

When we say, "Well, we shouldn't discriminate against somebody because they're gay or lesbian" that's contentious today, but I think in 20 years our children and our grandchildren will look back on us and say, "What were you thinking?" At least I hope that's what happens.

Franklin" Did you interest in human rights come from anyone in your family?

Shuler: Well probably when I think back on it is my father….he was raised as a Christian and he was I think in a bar in San Francisco and people were telling anti-Semitic jokes, and my father stood up and said "I am leaving because I find this offensive, I'm Jewish."

And my father was not the kind of person that bragged about himself, it was one of the few times I can ever remember him telling a story like that, but he told it to me and it made a big impression on me that he was…identifying with a group that wasn't his group.

Franklin: Did having polio help you in any way also identify with those who are marginalized?

Shuler: Oh, I'm sure it did, yes, because….I had polio when I was 10 years old and at the time I had polio I was a very popular little girl, you know I mean I was just one of the girls and I had lots and lots of friends. And when I had polio at that time it was sort of like we used to view AIDS in the early days.

We were infectious, but we were only infectious for about a week and then you couldn't get polio from me, but nonetheless I became a social isolate and I had no friends and I think people were afraid. And so I was both paralyzed and friendless.

And I realized I was the same person and so I think it gave me a lot of empathy towards people who through no fault of their own are you know are viewed in a negative way and people are afraid to be their friends. In my case it was because people were afraid that I would give them polio and other people are afraid of you because of your race or your religion or, or some other reason, or because you're gay.

Franklin: What are you most proud of?

Shuler: Well probably the major work that I did for the 20 years that I worked at the Commission was work that gets absolutely no publicity, and that's the thousands of cases that the Commission processes….

And I think I've given literally hundreds of workshops to employers and others on sexual harassment….and I feel really good about that.

I also feel good about the fact that the Commission through its work did a lot of mediation and we tried to bring parties together that had a dispute and see if they can settle it themselves.

I think that one of the things that troubles me the most is that the Commission is very underfunded… and it's also probably the weakest commission statutorily of any in the country.

We have no subpoena power…if somebody wants to say "We're not going to respond to you," there's nothing that the commission can do except file a lawsuit, which they're not going to file a lawsuit without any information.

I think there's lots of agencies that have subpoena power. I think the Sheep Commission has it.

Franklin: On balance how do you think Idaho's doing?

Shuler: I love Idaho, so it's hard for me to say that we're not doing well. I think because we've had some really serious threats, that we are kind of geared up, and it's like it's like….we've had an inoculation and we're ready to respond…if anything else of a major fashion happens, I think a lot of people will know how to respond.

I think we have a ways to go in some areas, and I hope we'll get there in my lifetime.

Franklin: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Shuler: I hope everybody realizes that there are thousands of people who in small, small ways have made enormous differences in other people's lives and that they've done it when they've not laughed at a racist joke, they've done it when they told their children something important, you know, to be good to the other children who are maybe poor or who are of a different race.

Those people are really heroes….we all have a responsibility here and probably most of us have done things that have helped to make Idaho the great place it is and that they should pat themselves on the back.