The Color of Conscience
The Color of Conscience is an hour-long Idaho Public Television documentary that looks at the development of the modern human rights movement in Idaho. It features the story of a small group of concerned citizens who fought against the Aryan Nations, ultimately bankrupting the neo-Nazi supremacist group in north Idaho. The program also examines some of the current human rights issues in Idaho, such as gay rights, immigrant rights and hate crimes.
We can't cure hate by hating. We can't guarantee the
rights of some by taking away the rights of others.
—Bill Wassmuth, human rights leader
You can't just say it. You've got to live it.
You've got to live human rights.
—Marshall Mend, human rights leader
The Color of Conscience: Human Rights in Idaho
A documentary about past and present human rights issues in Idaho.
We've had a bad rap in the national press, and I hope some of these kids are able to wipe that right off the face of the map.
Former Idaho Governor Phil Batt (1995-1999) is known for his human rights advocacy. When he was a state senator in 1969, he held unofficial hearings on the problems that minorities in Idaho were having, and then pushed for a law to establish a Commission on Human Rights, which passed that session.
As the head of the Republican Party, he advocated for a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, when others in his party disagreed. And as governor, his legislative agenda included more protections for farm workers, including a minimum wage law and workers' compensation.
At the same time, he also had to deal with the reputation that the Aryan Nations was giving Idaho with their cross burnings and marches. He was annoyed by the "sensationalistic" attention he thought a "few oddballs" were getting.
Gov. Phil Batt grew up on a farm in Wilder, Idaho, near Oregon. Although many different types of people worked on the farm, including "braceros" from Mexico, and German and Japanese war prisoners, they didn't mix with the community. And it was clear that some residents didn't want to be near them.
Here is a portion of an interview that Marcia Franklin conducted with him.
Franklin: You remember a sign in a window in your hometown.
Batt: There were a few people who were definitely racist, and one of them would be a store- keeper who had a sign, "No Dogs or Mexicans" in his window. Of course that was disturbing to most of us. For the most part I don't think the people thought much about race at all. They just thought their own insular affairs were what dictated their lives. They were very patriotic. They thought we had the best country and the best state and the best town in the world and they let it go at that.
Franklin: When do you remember first seeing somebody different?
Batt: There was a black fellow came around, a transient who wanted some work. Nobody saw fit to hire him. My dad hired him, but he put him off in a corner of the field said he won't cause any trouble there.
That's about the only black I saw until I went to the Army and then I went into the Army down in Biloxi, Mississippi and I was just appalled at the segregation down there. We got on a bus to go to the post and they rudely shoved the blacks to the back of the bus, got off and started walking down the sidewalk. The blacks would get off in the gutter and let us go through.
There were separate fountains, separate schools of course, separate phone books, separate obituaries, separate entrances to parks. Totally segregated and I, you know; I was appalled really.
Franklin: Do you remember the first action you took to tell people (racism) is wrong?
Batt: Oh, yes. I was an Elk, and I wanted to take (a Japanese friend) in as a guest, and they wouldn't let him inside the doors. They had a whites-only policy. So I turned my membership in at the time. And sent a letter to the national committee telling them what I thought about the policy.
Well, of course, they didn't change it at the time, but finally they did and I asked to be re-instated. I got 14 'blackballs,' which was the highest anybody ever got, from people who didn't like me criticizing them to begin with.
M - When you withdrew your membership, you were making a statement as a business man in a small community. Why did you do that?
Batt: I thought it was patently wrong that some of the finest people in the world being denied membership strictly on the basis of their race… it was really a very poor policy which I thought I would try to change.
M - Did you go into politics knowing these inequities were things you wanted to work on?
Batt: I don't think I gave it much thought, but it was a natural avenue for me to take when I got in because there was a void of anybody who took an interest in such things, and I immediately started angling for a Human Rights commission.
M - Why was that important to you?
Batt: Well, because Idaho had no comprehensive civil rights law and it was one of the very few states that didn't, and there was really no avenue for anybody to seek redress for racial discrimination, and I thought that was a very serious omission in our code. That was very unpopular with the legislators and I had hearings off and on for 60 days trying to convince folks that we needed it.
We had all kinds of testimony from Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Orientals; whoever was a little different came in and told their various ordeals they had undergone because of their race and we finally convinced enough legislators to let that go through with an appropriation of $30,000.
Franklin: You wrote in your autobiography that when you were governor and wanted workers' compensation for farm workers that "this was the only legislative matter for which I appealed privately to legislators."
Batt: I felt pretty strongly about that one…farm workers of all employees are probably the least able to initiate a tort action if they are injured. So I thought they should be under the system. I felt pretty strongly about it and I could see, I should say, blood in the water, that we had a chance of doing it.
So I pushed it really hard and I used all the allies I could summon up and I had some very good ones - among the farm community some of them- and we finally tipped them over.
Franklin: But you said it was a bittersweet victory.
Batt: Well, it was because I made some of my farm friends very angry. In fact, I think I lost friendships for a long period of time with some of them.
Franklin: Wilder, the town in which you grew up, is now almost 80% Hispanic. Does that surprise you?
Batt: Well, I'd have been very surprised had I known this 50 years ago. The way it has developed I think it makes good sense. Wilder was one of the earlier settlements to get a big percentage of Hispanics and I think they grew to be comfortable there and the other folks grew to be comfortable with them.
I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it. It's a good little town and people get along well. There are whites and Hispanics on the various boards and they progressively look at ways to better Wilder. I think it's a very good town.
Franklin: What do you think about illegal immigration issues in Idaho?
Batt: Well, we're like every other place in the country. We have some troubles evolving from it. I lend my voice to those who say we have to secure the border first thing. I think we could easily take care of the internal ones we have now if we could keep more from coming in.
Franklin: This is not a human rights issue for you.
Batt: No, it isn't. Of course the answer is for Mexico to develop a less corrupt society. It's just terrible down there and poverty is rampant and job opportunities are non-existent, and I expect most of us with some ambition if we were down there would try to get out of it. So I don't fault the people for wanting to leave, but I don't know. I'm not smart enough to have the solution to that problem.
Franklin: Talk about your efforts to establish a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in Idaho.
Batt: I think it's a manifestation of Idaho's collective attitude that we didn't feel as if that was an important thing to Idaho. That is, we were happy in our own heterogeneous culture - I mean homogeneous - and we didn't feel as if we ought to be wearing a hair shirt and trying to change our society because we didn't think it needed that much changing.
That failed to take into consideration the things I saw when I was in the Army down south and other activities throughout the country that indicated that there was a large part of our population not receiving equal opportunity in this country. I could see that is was staining our reputation as a state far and wide, and I admired Dr. King for what he had done and I thought it was high time that we got on the road to honoring him with a special day. So I went down there and told them all that at the committee, that I thought it would be really injurious to Idaho to old that in committee and not pass it out, and they finally did.
Franklin: You were irritated by all the coverage of the Aryan Nations.
Batt: The Eastern press in particular likes to come out to Idaho and do a piece on the Aryan Nations and publish it and then everybody could tell what a terrible state Idaho state was.
We got way more than our share of black eyes over those folks. We never did like them. Nobody liked them. We finally got rid of them, and I think every state has a few oddballs in it so we shouldn't be penalized for that.
Franklin: Did you ignore them when you should have paid attention?
Batt: I really don't know what we could have done to dislodge them. There were people who made the effort the minute they discovered who they were, but there was no legal way really until they finally sued them and forced them into bankruptcy.
I never felt we could ignore that kind of hatred. It was something to be dealt with. I guess I didn't know how to deal with it.
Franklin: You wrote in your book that one of the pleasant surprises you had as governor was your warm relationship with Idaho's tribes.
Batt: I did. I had no idea that would take place. During my campaign I was on several reservations and I was struck by the grinding poverty there. I mean poverty I had never seen to the extent it was, and lack of opportunities, unemployment. Really a sad situation.
So I was happy to have an opportunity to work with the various tribes. And they came into my office, their tribal council, the first day I was in there - maybe a couple of days - demanding an audience, and came trooping in and they were belligerent and they said, "Who are you going to have for an Indian desk?" I said, "I'm my Indian desk; I'll meet with you."
I met with them every month from then on and we formed some really strong friendships. I'm not saying we settled all our problems, but we made some progress.
Franklin: You disagreed with them vehemently on the gambling issue.
Batt: Yes, at first. I wasn't about to give at all on it….there's not much to be gained from gambling. It just transfers it from one person to another.
I fought that for a while, tried to get a legal opinion that would sustain us. But I could see that we were probably going to lose and I decided maybe it would be better to go ahead and lose and give them an economic opportunity.
Well, it's worked out very well that way. A tremendous amount of jobs have been formed, poverty has been greatly reduced, unemployment greatly reduced. It's just a lot different atmosphere on the reservations than there used to be.
Franklin: You've said that of all man's baser motives, racism is the worst.
Batt: It's pitiful. It seems endemic in mankind that they have to go around killing in the name of religion and race. It's happened throughout time. I read the Bible from cover to cover to try to get some answers. It was just as bad in the old days as it is now, killing each other for no good reason and sectarian reasons. I don't know the answer.
Franklin: What are the human rights challenges for Idaho as we move forward?
Batt: Well, the Hispanic population increase which has been spectacular is going to affect every facet of our life, and I hope we do that with some aplomb and some understanding from everybody.
I was proud of Idaho for rejecting by a two-to-one margin a proposition or initiative which would have prevented the legislature or the state of Idaho from giving protection based on sexual orientation in the Human Rights Act. I think that would have been a real mistake to say it is legal to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation.
I think that discrimination in the main categories of housing, equal job opportunities and all that certainly, the gay people should be protected.
Franklin: How do you feel about gay marriage?
Batt: Well, I don't know what to think about all that. I'm for allowing civil unions. I don't know what to think about gay marriage.Franklin: People remember this as your legacy--the human rights issues when you were governor.
Batt: I'm very happy about that.
Franklin: Is there anything else you'd like to say, perhaps to young people?
Batt: Well, this is one place in which young people are superior to adults or at least older adults. They are not buying onto this racism or sexism or whatever. It comes natural with them to not have these negative thoughts and I just hope they will keep that up. I think Idaho is among the better states for understanding each other. We have a bad rap in some of the national press and I hope those kids are able to wipe that clear off the face of the map.
I have a charge to keep.
Cherie Buckner-Webb is a 5th-generation Idahoan who has worked for several corporations in Boise and now has a consulting business specializing in helping companies with diversity issues and doing motivational speaking. In 2010, Buckner-Webb was elected to represent District 19 in Boise in the state House of Representatives. It appears that she is the first African-American to be elected to the Statehouse in Idaho's history. She is also well known for her gospel singing.
Marcia Franklin - Is it a stereotype or does it have some reality to it that Idaho has been a haven for racists?
Cherie Buckner-Webb: It is a reality. There's a reality that is not as overt as there was in northern Idaho. I can remember - if I can be so direct - John Birchers being here in the 70's. I can remember folks being very concerned about gathering together when they were working on the civil rights legislation. I was a youngster then but I remember this very well, hearing about John Birchers. I remember at age seven or eight having a cross on the front yard and hearing who might be responsible for that.
So, is it a stereotype? It is probably a stereotype to those that haven't experienced the results of people filled with hate based on religion and race and ethnicity, but for those of us that have felt the sting of it, yeah, I'd say it's a reality.
Franklin: What happened when you were seven or eight?
Buckner-Webb: Sitting down to dinner my mother got up for no conceivable reason, went to the front door, opened the door, hollered to my dad that the people across the street that their house was on fire. She could see a blaze in their window. Dad ran down the front stairs and went oh. The cross was burning in our front yard.
Franklin: Were you scared?
Buckner-Webb: I was young. I didn't know better. I really didn't know much. My mother - my dad put it out of course, he put it out and my dad was ready to take it to the alley and my mother said "No, put it here on the front porch. Put it here and make it visible."
And of course my dad called the police. I don't remember many details about it, but I remember what happened afterward and there was a hue and cry from our family saying we needed to move.
My father wanted to get rid of it, put it away. My mom wanted it out there visible. Ultimately my mom moved it into the mantle, on the mantle in the dining room and kept it forever.
My mother's family (and) my father's family were very worried for us as kids. There were three of us at that time - I had a younger sister and older brother. Mom said you're still walking to school - that was Central School for my brother and I. And we were careful. There were phone calls and hang ups and things like that but my mom really tried to make it business as usual for us but it was probably never business as usual after that.
Franklin: Where is the cross?
Buckner-Webb: It's gone now. It was forever in our front room and then it was in the garage forever and ever and I think finally my father....covertly took it out and dumped it. My mom was very distressed when she found out it was gone. My mom said this is a talisman to keep us in the fray and the fight, to know it's not to take things for granted.
Franklin: Was there was a vibrant African American community here?
Buckner-Webb: You know; it's really interesting. The River Street area was always thought of as to be the predominantly African American. It never was. There were a lot of African Americans living there but the percentage of African Americans was still less than the white population in that area. But there was a concentration - if you will. When it's a very small number it doesn't take very much to be a concentration.
There were also a number of black folks that lived in the 800 block of Bannock street. My great-grandfather lived there and then also my grandmother and grandfather and there was like four or five people right along that street - maybe six on that one 800 block.
I found out later - I live on 23rd and Bella Street - I found out that three or four black people lived on that street. Then also on Harrison Boulevard there was a woman that we talk about often that owned property. Two lots, two houses on Harrison Boulevard. She's Mamie Green. She was a cook. That's like probably 19 - early 50's. Amazing.
Franklin: What is the history of your family here?
Buckner-Webb: In 1908 my paternal great-grandfather moved to Idaho. Well, let's see, actually it was 1905. He came immediately from Colorado to Boise. He was born in St. Louis, as was his wife. My great-grandfather Hardy.
He said he was sent to Idaho to found a church. The Lord sent him so he established St. Paul Baptist church and he was the first pastor and the actual builder, physical builder because he was a carpenter of this church. (It's the) Idaho Black History Museum now.
His father-in-law, Louis Stokes came to help him in the physical building of the building so that's when it started.
Franklin: So your family dates back much further than I would imagine some of the white supremacists.
Buckner-Webb: They'd be surprised. I always want to say, "You're in my house." You know, that's what I say often. My father's father's family came in the 20's to homestead in Homedale and Nampa. Then they ultimately came to Boise.
My mother's family came with the railroad and none of them worked for the railroad but a couple of the girls married guys of the railroad later then ultimately to Boise from Minidoka and Pocatello to Boise.
Franklin: Did you experience much discrimination or harassment growing up?
Buckner-Webb: There have been a few things like the cross burning in your front yard, finding out from a wonderful girl that was a great friend of mine that I walked to school with every day, the fifth grade, that she loved me very much but we'd never be able to be too close because she couldn't send the missionaries to be with me. That was one of the first times that I realized that a religion would discriminate on people. She was LDS. And we were great friends, we really were, but she was just so hurt. And I remember going to my mom and said, "What's the deal? This is a God thing?"
My brother probably got a little more than I did. He was an athlete, he was very popular but you know, athletics can be rough.
Franklin: So there wasn't much?
Buckner-Webb: And I think part of that is related to the fact that there were so few (of us.)There were so few and I think that makes a real difference. You're just under the radar you know, in a way.
Now my mother was quite a civil rights activist so I got some attention because of her, and I think some of that was because they may have thought that she was impossible and they'd be careful. On the other hand my father was an athlete - or he had been an athlete. He refereed ball and he was very amiable and well known in the community, went to Boise Junior College and had been around here for a long time so that helped mitigate in my favor. So no, I really didn't experience a lot of racism.
But I do vividly remember the civil rights legislation. I do vividly remember going with someone to knock on doors for fair housing to see who would rent to whom and finding out that you call and the house is available and when you get there "No it's not available," because I took part in that and I enjoyed that with my mother.
I remember the Watts riots and folks being very distressed with black people in general...I remember when Martin Luther King passed away, the fight to be able to have a demonstration or anything in support of his death. I remember that very well.
So maybe not overt. Covert would be more what I would call the discrimination and racism.
Franklin: Were you ever worried because of the Aryan Nations compound?
Buckner-Webb: In my business I travel all over the United States and I work with people and whenever I introduce myself and say I'm from Boise, Idaho I don't know who is most shocked and surprised - white folks or black folks.
I don't know which one because black folks say, "Oh you poor child. I'm so sorry for you," and white folks tend to say, "I didn't know there were any black people in Idaho."
Franklin: But the Aryan Nations didn't worry you personally?
Buckner-Webb: I am of the mind that the Aryan Nations had a compound but I'm not of the mind that they were exclusively in northern Idaho..... and the way my mother raised me was to be vigilant and to be aware. Not suspicious and crazy but to be vigilant and aware and not to assume that hate only resides someplace with a sign over it.
Franklin: So do we still see that?
Buckner-Webb: I absolutely see it. In Boise, Idaho we now have 102 different languages spoken in the schools. I see parents of good intent who love their children saying absolutely abysmal things about children in their schools that are not dominant culture children.
I see stereotypes about their physicality, what they eat, drink, think. All kinds of things even with children in the school systems.
I see the same thing happening when an athlete at Boise State University is like a hero and then on television invites a white girl to become his wife. Ian Johnson. And I remember the hate - the mail, the letters, the things in the newspaper. Those kids caught it. They got a bad time because she was marrying this black guy. He was called a monkey, he was called all kinds of things. She was called all kinds of things. Her parents had to deal with backlash. Yeah, yeah, it's still here.
I see members of the gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender community continually being victimized. I see those that are perceived to be part of that community being victimized - physically, emotionally, professionally. I mean the list goes on and on and on and on.
I see people persecuted for their religion in this state. It goes on and on.
We're unconsciously incompetent. We don't even know what we don't know in many instances, particularly when it has to do with bigotry or discrimination or even hate sometimes. We're not even sure what the source is. We don't even realize we're doing it sometimes and then up it pops.
Franklin: I've heard that some black students at Boise State wear athletic clothes when they walk around downtown, even if they're not athletes, just so they don't get harassed.
Buckner-Webb: There's a saying and I even say this in corporate American when I'm doing it and I've found it to be true no matter where I go in the United States. You see two or three white people together it's a meeting. You see two or three black people together it's a revolution.
I mean, that's one of the perceptions. In corporate America and that's who I work with on a day to day basis. We find people of color, not just black. I'm talking about all kinds - Hispanic, others, finding that the rules of the road are very different.
Franklin: Why did you want to work for the legislature, which is a very white body?
Buckner-Webb: Well I've been operating in a very white body my whole life.
I will tell you that I was invited to run or asked to run for the legislature probably three or four times over my lifetime and I think that I had to get to this stage in my life to be able to do that. And some of that is to have just lived long enough. Some of it is to have raised my children to be adults so they won't get the backlash of whether I do well or do poorly or I offend someone or align with someone that maybe is not acceptable to one or another group.
Actually what made me run is I was really upset about education funding. I was furious. I was out of town working and I kept reading this stuff in the newspaper getting madder and madder. And as I came to make the decision, I was out of town, came back to town two days before you had to file and I went to an event at Boise State University. It was a film that Sonja Rosario had produced. I think it's called "Idaho's Forgotten War," and the woman in question, Amy Trice was there, and I was asked to do the invocation and let me tell you, I agonized over the invocation because I wanted it to be - oh my gosh, I just felt emotion. I don't know where that came from.
Anyway, the film was very powerful to me. One little woman who had six kids said "You know, this isn't right and I've got to do something about it." I went up to her on the break and just shook her hand. She just touched me in such a powerful way....she was so grounded in what she was doing.
And somehow or another that little lady gave me so much encouragement. I went up to her, shook her hand and she said "One woman can make a difference," and I went, "Oh my." Went back to my seat and I said "I'm on."
Another thing I believe is that everything that happens in your life prepares you if you're alert to it. I worked for Boise Cascade for ten years in timber wood products and I experienced a different part of Idaho than I would in Boise. I worked in Council, Cascade... rural Idaho, sawmill communities. Different sensibilities, different kind of culture.
I remember the first time that I went to the sawmill up north to get my tour and the wonderful manager was walking me through and this is where the log comes here and then we put it on the green chain and we do this and this and we got to one point and he stopped talking and he said "We need to go back in."
And I said well, what is it? And (he) said "Well, I didn't know how to say this, but we call the next piece of the equipment the nigger."
I said, "Oh yeah? We'll be calling it the log turner now won't we?" I think we'll be doing that - because I was a purchasing manager then. It was the nigger. So things pop up, pop up, pop up. It was kind of interesting.
So, again that helped prepare me for a different sensibility and there I would imagine was probably never any overt - it had been so much a part of the vernacular that folks didn't realize how it might be perceived. It's real interesting how things happen.
Franklin: Your campaign - did you receive any discrimination?
Buckner-Webb: I went to this wonderful training to prepare you to run for office and they were telling you how when you knock on the door you just walk right up to the door and stand right as close as you can to the front door and I said "I don't think I'll be doing that."
And they talked about you could knock on doors until probably close to 8:30, 9:00 - don't think I'll be going that late unless it is in my neighborhood.
So there are a lot of really interesting things that came to bear - but no, I didn't feel any slamming your door because you're whatever. It was a wonderful, amazing experience.
Franklin: When I asked the Democratic Party chair if you were the first black elected to the legislature he said he didn't know, said he hadn't even thought about it.
Buckner-Webb: It was funny, neither did I. By all indications I'm the first black to be elected to the legislature. And as I went down the walls and looked just to make sure once I got there I didn't see anybody that looked like me. I was double checking. Or - it's a secret, you know what I'm saying? You never know. You know, a drop of blood? You know what that does!
Franklin: And that makes you feel....?
Buckner-Webb: It makes me feel I have a charge to keep. That's a term that I use all the time and when I was young I heard it in the church. There's a song that says "A charge to keep a charge to keep I have, a God to glorify."
When you're the first--- and I've been the first of many things in my life -- the black student body officer, the first this or the first black on the Junior League - check that action--I think that you have a responsibility because ....you're kind of the representative for all.
I don't want to perpetuate that, but I'm conscious of that, so I'm proud to be the first and I know that I have a responsibility to represent, represent my folks - women of a certain age, black folks and women too.
Franklin: If Reverend Butler had heard you sing maybe something would have-
Buckner-Webb: Don't know. You know I would have loved to have met him. Isn't that crazy? I would love to have met him. I'm always amazed by the psyche that creates greatness and depravity too. I'm just interested to know that.
Franklin: Does your election mean that Idaho is changing or is it just the district you're in?
Buckner-Webb: Well I've got to tell you - people have asked me is it because of the district you're in and I'm going to tell you, I don't believe that. I don't believe that. The district I'm in is probably one of the best in the state of course for progressives and that kind of thing, but great things happen across this state too. We've seen people doing great things from a variety of locations and when I even think about Vernon Baker living where he lived. Well, heck. He was right up there in northern Idaho doing his thing and lived a peaceful wonderful rich life - that from his lips.
I hope Idaho is changing. I hope Idaho is improving. There are a lot of good things about us historically. I don't think that it is by accident that I ended up here or that my family ended up here. 25:45 I want to stay here. It's contingent on a lot of things. My intention is to be here till the end. I hope my kids feel that way. So there's some work to do so that it will be the place that we want it to be to draw and attract and retain people.
Franklin: Why did you feel that it was important to stand up last year in the rotunda on Human Rights Day in front of the governor and his wife and remind people of what was going on with the human rights commission potentially being defunded?
Buckner-Webb: It was a non-issue to me. It was intuitive. We were there to celebrate Human Rights Day and Martin Luther King Day and the travesty was that there was the risk of the human rights commission being eliminated. And so perhaps I was invoking my great grandfather.
I had a charge to keep. It was important to bring to people's attention - this is just not a day of celebration and coming together in a room and listening to the echo and listening to the music and patting ourselves on the back. This is about action. It's about action. We are compelled and committed to make this a better place than the one we arrived to.
We need to leave a legacy that we can be proud of. It's not enough to come together for the joy of it. There's a charge to keep.
Franklin: So even at the risk of offending -
Buckner-Webb: You know what? I don't think I gave thought to offending him. I didn't think he'd be thrilled, but it was the right thing at the right time and there was a group of people that were like- minded just by virtue of why they were there, to say this is an opportunity for you to take action
Franklin: You did have one experience during your campaign that was racist.
Buckner-Webb: It was some of my yard signs that were defaced. As they were picking up the yard signs at the end of the election....a wonderful young man that came from Arkansas to be my intern saw, I think it said if I recall correctly, it said "Kill the nigger bitch, signed KKK" and he was very much upset by that.
Franklin: So we have room to grow.
Buckner-Webb: We have much room and still there is time and still there is work.
People say, "Why do you live in Idaho?" Because it's wide open, because here you can actually engage yourself and actually be a part of that process.
Sam Byrd is a longtime community facilitator and leader in human rights groups in Idaho. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he owns DiversityWorks, which specializes in helping businesses and non-profits understand cross-cultural issues within their firm or with their customers.
Franklin: What do you think the effect of the Aryan Nations verdict was on human rights in Idaho?
Byrd: Here was a moment in history -- not just in Idaho history -- but a moment in history where people said, you know, "basta"-"enough." And it's exciting. I think it's what keeps me really continuing to do the work. You've got to have that something, that victory if you will. And in this case it was a huge victory.
Franklin: But there's still work to do, yes?
Byrd: You can stop and breathe a sigh of relief, but it also needs to be kind of a way of catching your second wind, because what happens is that many times you drive out what is very overt, and you know below that surface it's more difficult to root it out.
It's kind of a silent way of continuing to attack, you know, inclusiveness, and I'm sure that's more hurtful. I'm sure that that's worse than folks that you can see, folks that you can hear. You know, that covertness of hate is dangerous because you don't know where it's going to hit, you don't know where it's coming from. At least if you see it, if you hear it you have some sense of where to direct your energies.
Franklin: Is poverty part of the issue, too?
Byrd: I think about Hispanic kids who aren't doing well in school but I immediately start thinking about the number of dominant culture kids or predominant culture kids who we don't talk about. It's as if they are missing because they are the right color. But if you really take a look at how poor children do in school, you know income does matter.
The other one is that...many times poor folk and folk of color have been packed into the same communities, the same schools and so we've actually been pitted against each other and so what happens is that we're scrambling for that little…we're competing against each other. And so what has happened is this incredible amount of misunderstanding cross-culturally.
The strength is in cross-cultural work. We both need to move towards each other. I need to see the world through your eyes but you too need to see the world through our eyes.
It's not just a white/black thing. It's not just Latinos against white but it's this dynamic, this dynamic of race, this dynamic of ethnicity and each of us needs to call ourselves to what do we need to do in here to be able to really address it.
That's the hardest work you and I will ever be called to do, anyone will be called to do, is to see it through the eyes of the other, including the people you disagree with. And so if I'm asking folks to look at it that way because I want them to include me, then aren't I also compelled to do that same work? But that's the most difficult.
Franklin: What causes bigotry?
Byrd: Fear. I think it's fear. You know, we're fearful of them, them "the other" and what they believe, and the other is fearful of us. Boy, that makes for a horrible environment and that's the problem. That's what we still need to address.
Does fear still exist because difference matters, diversity matters? I argue yes.
Now within that then there are unique challenges that we face. I say this whole lack of movement at the federal level for any immigration reform, any meaningful reform, has really set back race relations as regards to Latinos and others in Idaho twenty years. 13:36
I've been doing this work 30 years and what I find is that there is more fear, not less. There is more misunderstanding, not less....the new way of going after the Latino community is by bashing immigrants. When people say "I'm against illegal immigration" are they for legal immigrants? Well, the empirical evidence is no. They tend to not be the advocates of those individuals as well, and so that is our huge challenge.
You see states and local municipalities, because of the lack of inaction we're at each other's throats. What happens in the school where half of the school children are undocumented and half of your community resents the fact the other half is there? How difficult is it for a teacher to teach a child if half your patrons resent the fact that the other half of the community members are there?
And then what does that do to a community, the very concept of community if in fact I feel and I resent that the outsider is coming in and they are taking over?
They are not only taking my jobs - this is where the argument I think begins - but they may be taking away my culture. They may be taking away my language; they may be taking away my status. That's the fear.
Franklin: Why do you do this work?
Byrd: There's not a lot of glory in this kind of work. It's tough to make a living, but you do it because you are hopeful that one day, I really do believe that that day will come.
People say, "Why do you live in Idaho?" Because it's wide open, because here you can actually engage yourself and actually be a part of that process. Here you can be a part of really creating that world that you speak of, this world where borders don't matter.
But before those real borders go away we need to eliminate the borders within ourselves. It's those imaginary borders that I want to concentrate on. Those other ones are just kind of a focal point. It's a diversionary border if you will. But what about the borders within us?
The other is that we're multi-dimensional. I'm not just my ethnic group. I'm not just my religious beliefs. I'm not just my gender. I'm not just my sexual orientation. I'm multi-dimensional and if I realize that about myself can I begin to realize that about the other?
Above all here is why I have hope -young people are like the other generations are misunderstood but I just love a young generation that says it's all good - in the midst of everything that is coming at them, in the midst of all of these things that are being debated in society today - to be able to still say it's all good is I think that eternal hope, that eternal way of looking that things can really be different.
Franklin: There was a huge march in Idaho 2006 of Hispanics and their supporters for immigration reform. Latinos left their job for the day to show how much the state depends on their labor.
Byrd: In one week we were able to get more than 150 volunteers and raised more than $4,000 from people who would call and say, "You know I don't have a lot of money but I have five or ten dollars because this is…we're doing something for the community. We're going to speak out for something, for immigration reform, for meaningful debate, for moving forward."
People were excited because we weren't just marching against something, we were marching for something. How many times do we march for the right thing? Yhat's why you see people come out - because we were able to do something -I'm not kidding you, in less than seven days that march was organized. It was huge.
Some people say that it was no more than 4,000 but I say it was close to 10,000. I've never seen that many Mexicans in one place and not only Mexicans because I'll tell you what - it was exciting -I was standing on that stage and to look out and to see faces of people who I didn't expect there. I get goose bumps because I say these people were for, they were for their community; they were for something.
It also has created a backlash....we had people who got fired from their jobs, people who are here legally, who are here legally who got fired from their jobs for coming to the march to stand for something.
We had a group of 20 individuals who called us and said "we lost our jobs" and so we started telling folks, "We can't advocate you leave your job to go out and do this, because we have the luxury of being able to go back to our jobs, so they don't." But even then, even in spite of that people were willing to come out, so what does that tell you?
Greg Carr is an Idaho native and philanthropist who has devoted much of his time, energy and money to human rights issues. He endowed the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He also donated $1 million to help develop the Idaho Human Rights Education Center and Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.
When the Aryan Nations lost the lawsuit against them, their Hayden, ID compound was auctioned off as part of bankruptcy proceedings. Carr bought the land and buildings from the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Keenans and after talking with local human rights advocates, decided to destroy the compound. He then donated $1 million to fund the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene.
This judgment bankrupts Mr. Butler, but he was bankrupted from the start
because his ideas were corrupt and evil.
Morris Dees is a civil rights attorney who, in 1971, co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL. He is well-known for his innovative legal strategies in breaking hate groups. In 1998, after Victoria and Jason Keenan were shot at by guards at the Aryan Nations compound, Kootenai County Task Force member Norm Gissel asked Dees if he would represent the Keenans in a civil case against Butler and his associate, Michael Teague.
Dees won the case, with a judgment of more than $6 million for the plaintiffs. Although the Keenans received only $225,000 from the sale of the Aryan Nations compound, the verdict bankrupted the organization.
To be given the honor of leading a purposeful life is a precious thing.
Norman Gissel is an attorney in Coeur d'Alene and one of the original members of the group that became the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which spoke out against the Aryan Nations. Gissel also provided legal support for victims of harassment, and was particularly crucial in convincing the Keenans to pursue their case against Richard Butler and in securing the legal assistance of Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He spoke with Marcia Franklin in September, 2010.
Marcia Franklin -Was there something when you were growing up that helped inspire you to think outside of yourself?
Norm Gissel - The thing that affected my character the most I think was team sports. We always arranged the team sports as a child so that the contest was equal and if it was lopsided we would stop in the middle of the game and we would rearrange the players until the playing field was fairly level.
Franklin: Then you said when you got to college you started noticing inequities as well.
Gissel: The most interesting person in the '50's was Martin Luther King. He was the smartest guy around, he was the best strategist, he was the best tactician and his mission was the most difficult and therefore the most interesting. And so he was the topic of conversation with us at the University of Idaho a lot because he was really this vital human force that was dramatically seeking change in American culture. That informed our thinking a lot.
I think between my freshman and my sophomore year at the University of Idaho I was a Delta Tau Delta and we had an annual convention each year and I got to go with a friend of mine and so we took the train from Boise all the way to Boston and then we got on a bus and went to Squamscott, Massachusetts right on the coast.
The winds of change were really, really strong at that time and we in the fraternity wanted to know what the national fraternity was going to do about integration and things of that nature. And the leaders, the adult leaders of the fraternity were extremely nervous about all of these very direct questions and you could take the measure of them at that time and realize as you were sitting there listening and participating in this dialogue that Jim Crow was a crumbling institution and you saw it firsthand there.
So when we came back that next fall we had an opportunity to integrate our fraternity with an Oriental, an American who happened to be Oriental, and so in the application to become a fraternity member you had your name and your address and the fraternity that you wanted to pledge to and then you had a box and it said race and there was only one place to check and that was white.
And so we said what are we going to do? And the guy's name was Larry Eng and that's pretty obviously an Oriental last name or surname, so we just had him write his name down and we just didn't check the box. And either they didn't notice or they didn't have the strength of character to make a fuss about that. But we were ready to leave the national fraternity if they made a fuss about that because Larry Eng was going to be a part of our fraternity whether the national liked it or not.
Franklin: Why did you want to be an attorney?
I was just fascinated with solving problems. I was good at solving problems of all types and the law in large measure is solving problems and they are as unique as the people that walk through your door and that's one of the big reasons. And the other reason was that attorneys had put themselves in a position where they are part of a moral theater and that you can make immense changes and you can contribute immensely to society because of the consequential things that you involve yourself in.
Franklin: When did you first start noticing anything was awry in terms of the Aryan Nations or the White Supremacist movement?
Gissel: It was when a Jewish restaurant owner by the name of Sid Rosen who had a restaurant in Hayden Lake, Idaho and he came to his restaurant one morning and the outside walls of his restaurant were covered with graffiti ….the people that did that used the German words for Jew for example, Juden, and it reminded me and it was identical with the markings that were used on Jewish shop owners windows during Kristallnacht, which was the terrible, terrible period of time in Germany... it was the first public assault on Jews in Germany at that time.
Franklin: At the time what was your hope by forming the group?
Gissel: I think initially we believed that the laws needed to be strengthened....that was number one. Then number two, that were true victims of these acts and that these victims could not feel isolated. They needed to be reminded that they were part of our culture and that they were not the "human other."
Franklin: Is North Idaho inherently racist?
Gissel: There is no question in my mind that the culture of north Idaho is the culture of America, and that we don't have an isolated culture that has a uniquely racist base. That is just simply not possible when....the task force has had as much success as it has had over the past several decades.
North Idaho has been wildly misunderstood. Its cultural reserve and its live-and-let live attitude has been misinterpreted for decades and to the detriment of north Idaho. This is a good culture and these are good people.
Franklin: It's amazing what happened from just starting that small group.
Gissel: There was no way to tell that this journey would be this long and this fascinating and this consequential. No way of knowing that. But one thing did lead to another and we never looked back.
As a consequence of this there is a whole group of us who have led what you could say is highly consequential lives. We've led useful lives and we've been involved in important business for decades and it has changed all of us. We're different people than when we started twenty some years ago, that's for sure.
Franklin: Did you have any regrets when you first jumped in to help Sid?
Gissel: No. We never looked back and at different stages, we in our family would have family meetings - should we go forward? Those family conversations were pretty short because we all agreed that....we didn't see that we could do anything but what we were doing.
...in 1986 there was lots of activity. There was the attempted murder of Bill Wassmuth and the Aryan Nations was very, very active and very, very threatening and we were followed at different times and photographed and we had a rock through the window of our house, threatening phone calls. It was a dark time.
We had a serious family huddle at that point and it was unanimous, it was four to zero that we should continue on our course and we look back on it, we didn't have a choice but to proceed and so we did.
A lot of people were relying on the task force to articulate an opposition to the Nazis. There was no other civil rights group in north Idaho. We were it and we were creating the model for it.
Franklin: What was your impression of Richard Butler?
Gissel: I was unable to see any charismatic qualities to him and I did look for those because he was a leader and he had a group of people that followed him so I had a clinical interest in what it was that attracted other people to him and his beliefs. I was unable to see anything but a boring old man who was wildly wrong on almost every subject known to mankind.
I did see video tapes of him talking in a casual way to young men and I did see that - how adoring and attracted they were to him and perhaps a father-like figure to them.
I think most of the people if not all of the people that did come to the compound over time...had dysfunctional qualities to their personalities. And many of them were former prisoners and former inmates.
Franklin: Was the Aryan Nations powerful? Many people just thought they were a small bunch of malcontents.
They were powerful in several senses. They were powerful enough and vocal enough to have stained Idaho generally and particularly north Idaho for decades.
They were determined people and they were actively recruiting and they wouldn't tell you how many people belonged to them. Just like the Nazis in early Germany, early in the 1930's.
It was wildly serious. The number of felonies that they committed that were race based felonies... was just legendary. It was well over a hundred so it was serious business and it seriously affected us and seriously affected our culture and we lived with this stain for these decades and only now we're getting rid of it.
I think it is abundantly clear to anybody that objectively looks at the history of these Nazis and the history of the task force that if it weren't for the task force it would be a wildly different culture than the one that we enjoy at the present time. ....they would have been able to imprint their racist beliefs on this culture for generations.
...if you put say, 3,000 people that are determined, articulate advocates for a particular view in a culture of 100,000, they can carry the day, if they're not countered and dealt with.
Franklin: Some people wanted to ignore them, not give them press.
Gissel: The worst possible thing you can do is ignore them. They regard ignoring them as assent and they will tell you that. If you are quiet around Nazis you lose and they win. There is no historical example of where you can ignore Nazis safely and come out the other side with some sort of cultural victory.
Franklin: And now you're asked to go speak in places like John Day, OR. (Where a neo-Nazi said he wanted to buy land.)
Gissel: John Day did what John Day did. We were there and we maybe catalyzed some of their beliefs and some of their activities but it was primarily a Grant County and John Day activity.
But we would not have had the moral authority to go down there and speak the way we did and advocate the way we did had we not gone through this baptism of fire so to speak, that we had dealt with Nazis for well over twenty years and almost nobody else in the country has done that. And we've done it and we came out the other side the stronger people and advocates, in almost a different way than anybody else in the country.
Franklin: Are we seeing a resurgence of hate?
Gissel: ....there are two ways to look at culture. You can hear the noise of culture, or you can see the music of culture. And there is lots of noise out there and it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of knowledge to hear the music of culture.
I think that this period that we're going through right now is just a bunch of noise and I don't think that America culturally has moved off of its basic concepts and precepts that have guided us for so many, many years.
I think in 10 or 15 years Americans will just stand around and apologize to one another for behaving like the fools that they are--or that they seem to be--at this present time in our political and cultural history.
Undoubtedly there are some feelings of white disenfranchisement going on out there in American culture as a result of Barack Obama being our president, but I don't think that's over time going to be a determinative factor in the future of American society.
There is always going to be a disaffected Nazi element in American society.... there is almost an Elliot Wave process that is going on. It was prominent in the late '20's and early '30's and then declined and then was up again after World War II and then it was up again in the Kennedy Era.
But each time it was less prominent and less spectacular than the preceding times and I think that what we're seeing is maybe remnants of those eras.
Those days are gone and they're not going to return, but we see them constantly testing the waters and constantly out there seeing whether they can mount another attack...
But they haven't been able to do it and the reason why is because America - all of its individuals and all of its city organizations and its political organizations, have ultimately turned their back on that vicious, naked racism that used to dominate so much of American culture.
Franklin: Do you miss Bill Wassmuth?
Gissel: Yep, a lot. He was a great guy and an enormous personality and a friend to be valued and someone who we think a lot of to this day and remember and talk about. He's always in our thoughts. He was a spectacular human being and was the leader that we needed when we had him. I can't imagine that we would have been able to do what we did as well as we did during those terrible times had we not been led by Bill Wassmuth. A great guy. We miss him a lot even to this day.
Franklin: At least he got to see the compound.
Gissel: It was a great day for all of us because we knew how ill he was but he was a happy man. He walked on that compound and it was a marvelous moment for all of us, all that work that we put in was worth it just to see Bill wandering around there with that big smile on his face.
Franklin: You were able to take photographs of the compound before it was torn down.
Gissel: We..maybe we only reached one agreement with the Nazis the whole time during the litigation, and that was that after that litigation we could have a photographic record of the compound as an ongoing, existing Nazi enterprise.
And so there was a specific time and a specific day that we could go up there and Edgar Steele (Butler's attorney) was there to make sure that we weren't injured or anything and so that was a rare opportunity to make that photographic record of an ongoing Nazi enterprise in the middle of America.
Franklin: And what was your sense walking around?
Gissel: The manifest evilness of that place and its contents was almost a physical force. You almost felt that you being physically assaulted by the images that you saw there. It was an awful a place as I've ever been. It was horrifying. Horrifying to see rooms upon rooms of nothing but images of Nazis and SS troops and photograph after photograph of Hitler in all different manner of dress. It was just an utterly evil place.
Franklin: So when you came onto the compound describe what they were doing.
Gissel: ...they started playing German marching music as soon as we arrived...and looked at Diana (Norm's wife) and said rude things to Diana. I think they regarded her as the 'human other.' She's an American citizen of course but as a person of Palestinian background they regarded her as the 'human other' and maybe were as angry about that as anything else that day- that she was violating their sacred land. And we on the other hand, thought they were violating our sacred land.
Franklin: And are you glad to see it as an empty space or do you hope that something will be there?
Gissel: It's hard to say. It's really appropriate for right now to be a place just like it is. Later on - it will probably be after I'm long gone -it might be memorialized in some different way but for now it's resting and being used in a pastoral way and that's just perfect for that land. Really from the beginning it was pasture land and was used for cattle and it had a dairy farm.
Franklin: Is the negative aura gone?
Gissel: Yes. That is gone. I can go up there finally and I can't fully escape but I can practically escape the recollections that go through your mind when for all the decades that we were dealing with these guys.
Franklin: Was it hard to find a legal way to get at the Aryan Nations?
Gissel: Well, it was for a long time because the leadership of the Aryan Nations was pretty careful about separating this enormous litany of crimes that were committed and their own direct participation in those crimes.
The fundamental mistake they made was when....there were armed guards on the property - always a dangerous thing - and that they were inebriated which is a lack of supervision. And they heard there the Keenan's car and they concluded in this inebriated condition that something bad was about to happen to the compound and so they jumped in this pickup and gave chase from the compound and chased the Keenans two miles down the road and put five bullet holes in the Keenan's car and shot them off the road and assaulted them.
There is a direct agency relationship that exists from the owners of the compound to the guards of the compound, because they wouldn't be guards unless they were authorized to be guards.
Franklin: Of course you needed the victims to come forward.
Gissel: ...if the task force had not been in existence the Keenans would have had no entity to report this terrible event to.... there was a report to the police but there was not a follow-up dialogue with any civic organization or with any lawyer.
Franklin: Did you have a sense immediately that this was the crack you needed to go after them?
Gissel: Yes. This was more than a crack. This was a huge, huge fact situation. It was a criminal enterprise, it harmed people and the laws of agency took that crime and put it right at the foot of Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations.
Franklin: How would you describe Morris Dees? (The lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center who tried the case.)
Gissel: He is a legal genius. He really is but even more than that his intuitive qualities are the best I've ever seen. He can understand more about a human being by chatting with them fifteen minutes than I would know about that person knowing him for fifteen years. He is acutely sensitive to other people and the amount of information that he can pick up from somebody just by talking to them in a brief time is just absolutely amazing.
Franklin: What was the atmosphere in the courtroom like?
Gissel: It was electric. It was riveting. Morris doesn't ask questions, he talks to people. When he was talking to the jury there at the last time it was an intimate conversation that he was having with that jury almost on another level of human existence.
He was using ordinary English words but there's a way he has of communicating that was just absolutely riveting. It was one of the most remarkable moments in my life to listen to him chat literally with the jury and have that jury so fascinated and so interested that there's just nothing else in the world that those thirteen people - twelve jurors and Morris Dees.
Franklin: How did you feel when you heard the verdict?
Gissel: When that jury did come in it was a huge, huge emotional moment for everybody. My wife was sitting there with me and Tony and none of us will ever forget that moment.
Franklin: Does it seem like its ten years ago?
Gissel: No, it seems like it was yesterday. I can go back and taste the air. I remember exactly everything about that day. It seems like it maybe occurred this morning. That's how fresh it is in my mind.
Franklin: The settlement is considered so creative in the sense it bankrupted the Aryan Nations.
Gissel: What was interesting about that was that the jury knew that....the land was worth roughly $225,000. That's what they knew but they brought back a jury verdict of six million dollars. And the difference between $225,000 and six million is functionally a political and cultural statement of how angry that jury was that they did these things to the Keenans and by a larger extension what these people had done to north Idaho.
Franklin: The plaintiffs never saw the $6 million, though, right?
Gissel: No. Oh no, no. They saw $225,000 and they had no attorneys' fees to pay.
Franklin: Amazing that everything can crumble that way.
Gissel: There's no way to even calculate the odds of that happening a second time. It just wouldn't ever occur. It was just bizarre. The whole thing was bizarre but it actually had happened.
Franklin: Do you think that Idaho has changed or do you think that we still have - like much of the country - a ways to go?
Gissel: ....it's a function of democracy to constantly reach out to people who are disenfranchised or treated differently or are identified as the 'human other' at some point in our history and democracy consistently reinvents itself and incorporates these minorities.
The disabled community just recently in the last 15 to 20 years has been mainstreamed and is part of our society where they weren't before.
If you were in a wheelchair in Coeur d'Alene in 1980 you couldn't get into the library. It seems unbelievable that a person in a wheelchair could not get into our library and if they did the books were so close together in the stacks that they couldn't run the wheelchair up and down there. Now it's just a matter of course that they are.
So democracy has a way of reinventing itself continually to incorporate minorities and minority status and mainstream those people. Otherwise democracies have a far more difficult time functioning.
Franklin: The rest of the state pitched in during all of this.
Gissel: That's right and I want to point out that while we were up here dealing with these Nazis on not one single occasion did we ever ask a governor to do something that they weren't willing to do.
And the legislature for the state of Idaho did yeoman service at one time and I think still to a large extent. We have the best civil rights laws in America and our legislature when they were asked at important times in our history to write this legislation they did so and they did so clearly and affirmatively. And the symbolic value of that was immeasurable. It was a big deal.
We didn't act alone, that's for sure. We had lots and lots of support. And the business community here in Kootenai County supported us and has been very, very valuable and very useful for us.
Franklin: So a small group of determined people can do a lot.
Gissel: Yes. And the task force has proven that, but one of the things the task force did prove is that the community, if they're asked the right questions will support you in these really trying times and will give of themselves and their time and their money and their efforts.
And so while you could regard the task force as a plucky few that lived through this, that is true in a sense, but what is really true is that there was this enormous support throughout the community and throughout Idaho and throughout the inland empire for almost every one of our actions. So that was the function of our success was that our culture allowed us to be successful.
Franklin: I assume you feel this will be one of your legacies, your work on this issue?
Gissel: Yes....to be given the honor of leading a purposeful life is a precious thing and certainly this part of my life and this part of my wife's life, we will never forget it.
I don't wish it on anybody else, but we did live through it and we learned an immense amount from that and it changed us as people. It changed our community and we are culturally different now in north Idaho and probably the inland empire as well. We're just simply different cultural animals than we were at the beginning of this Nazi movement.
There is an immense pride and sense of accomplishment that people of Kootenai County have certainly and the people of north Idaho generally about what we were able to achieve here. And it wasn't just the task force as I've indicated. The task force would have failed if the culture of our community hadn't given us the permission to succeed, quite literally.
We saw the beginning and the middle and absolute end of an American Nazi movement.
Franklin: Is it over?
Gissel: ....you are tempted to stop and look back and say "Man, what a great job this was" or "What a great job that was" or "Thank goodness that's over with," but it is never over with. It is never over with. So we are still as busy in many ways as we were ten, fifteen years ago.
Franklin: You've said this is a test of a community.
Gissel: In any time when there is an introduction into your community of a racist element and a nakedly vicious racist element such as the Aryan Nations, that is a challenge to your community. That is a direct assault on your community values and so a community has a choice of either reacting and reacting aggressively or not reacting. And if it doesn't react it is a form of acquiescence which is bad, which is tragic.
It is a fundamental character changing event in a community's life to be presented with--which we were-- an American Nazi movement. How do you deal with that? And there are no blueprints because every culture is different, so you have to invent your own blueprint but it is necessary.
You cannot not do something. You just can't do it. You just cannot allow nature to take its course so to speak. You have to affect nature and you have to affect the outcome.
Franklin: And it worked.
Gissel: It did in fact work. Aren't we fortunate?
I think it's important to talk about human rights as really the basic and fundamental protections that we all need to be able to take care of ourselves and our families.
Amy Herzfeld is the director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center in Boise, which also includes the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. The center gives tours of the memorial, develops human rights training and curriculum for teachers, lobbies the legislature on various human rights issues and provides support for the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition, which tries to prevent bullying of LGBT students and teachers.
Marcia Franklin - How old is the center?
Amy Herzfeld -The center was founded in 1996 to construct the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and that was its sole purpose as an organization. The memorial was dedicated to the public in August of 2002 and it was really during construction that the organization transformed to be a statewide human rights education center.
Franklin: Why do you think that was?
Herzfeld: I think the founders who were involved in the creation of the memorial were really overwhelmed by community support and enthusiasm for a place that would elevate these themes around human rights and human dignity and as more support from teachers and students was evident they thought "wow, we really need an organization that can bring the message of the memorial to classrooms around the state" because not every student will be able to come to the memorial on a field trip.
Franklin: When you see the students come through what kind of feeling do you get?
Herzfeld: I feel like the memorial is as relevant as it has ever been. I feel like human rights are moving targets, so the impact of the memorial shifts depending on the audience, but the students who come through are always moved and we hear really touching stories.
A young man who came from Weiser High to see the memorial a couple of weeks ago said it was the first place he had been where he really felt like he was free of judgment.
And because the memorial is so multi-issue and hits on so many different themes throughout history and really current human rights attacks and challenges, every student can find something there that speaks to them, they can find a quote that moves them.
Herzfeld: Why is it so important to have the entire declaration of human rights written there?
Herzfeld: I feel like it is critical to have the full Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the memorial. It is neat that we can say the memorial is one of the few places in the world where the UDHR is on public display, but I also feel like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights undergirds our organization. It is really a system of values in a political framework that informs everything we do.
It also gives us an opportunity to talk to the public about what human rights are. They are both laws and a system of values. They are these universal values that every society shares. How can we use them to hold lawmakers accountable? How can we use them to articulate the kind of justice we want to see in the world? It is really a powerful document and a great place to start a conversation with people about what human rights are.
Franklin: Is this still the only memorial to Anne Frank in the country?
Herzfeld: As far as I know it is still the only memorial dedicated to Anne Frank in the country.
Franklin: And it grew out of the voluminous number of people who came to see that temporary exhibit, right?
Herzfeld: Right. There was an exhibition at the Idaho Historical Museum which is across the street from the Anne Frank Memorial. It came in 1994 and there were over 50,000 people who came to see it - mostly school children who came in busses from as far away as Idaho Falls. And that was really an overwhelming interest in the story of Anne Frank and it sparked a more permanent tribute.
Franklin: Do you have a favorite thought in the memorial?
Herzfeld: I really like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because I love to be able to talk to people about why that is a useful framework for understanding social justice and how it helps to unite issues and constituencies.
I like talking to people about American exceptionalism to human rights. We don't have a lot of popular dialogue in this country about human rights so it is exciting to me to be able to talk about subsequent human rights treaties and covenants and where the United States fall in the global market of human rights.
I also love the quote wall and I think everybody has a favorite quote. There are a number that jump out to me. I of course like the Dr. Seuss quote but I also really like the Emiliano Zapata quote.
Franklin: What does that say?
Herzfeld: It says "it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees," which I realize is pretty radical, but it has always stuck with me, especially someone who has grown up in Idaho and I've really since my youth worked on human rights issues including really marginalized issues like equality for the LGBT community. In doing that and what can be a hostile political climate I feel like it is important to give your voice - lend values to your voice even when it is difficult to do.
Franklin: Do you think Idaho deserves the reputation it has had nationally and internationally as a haven for hate?
Herzfeld: You know; I don't. I feel like when the Aryan Nations was at its most active point up in Northern Idaho in their compound - what, they had a couple dozen members and I feel like it is sad that that vocal minority achieved such main stream media notoriety. I understand why that was sensational for the media to cover and I think that human rights issues are obviously critical in Idaho and we have to address them but I do feel like that reputation was ill-deserved.
Franklin: You talked about the hostile political climate. What exists here that makes it difficult to work on human rights issues?
Herzfeld: I think we've faced some real challenges to organizing because our state is so vast and geographically diverse. It can take eight hours to drive from one community to the next so there is a lot of isolation that occurs in rural and remote communities so I think there are just some real practical barriers to organizing.
I think we're an under-resourced state when it comes to social justice organizations and that can be a challenge too.
We also know that we're a very conservative state and those values often conflict with the values of human rights. We've certainly found that in Idaho the two communities that are most often targeted for human rights attacks, at least in the last fifteen years are the Lesbian/Gay/Bi-Sexual/Transgender community - LGBT - as well as the immigrant community.
I think that happens for a few reasons. I think that those are communities that don't have enumerated civil rights protections in our anti-discrimination laws.
Franklin: Hispanics do have the protection in the civil rights law.
Herzfeld: That's true. Now race is a protected class in the state discrimination statute, but I think that xenophobia and fear of immigrants are so prevalent that that is an issue that is really conflated with race and really fueled by racist ideologies.
Franklin: Do you like the word "tolerance?"
Herzfeld: You know, I'm not crazy about the word tolerance. I think it is a little outdated. I understand that it had some utility initially as a word that could help brand these ideas around fairness and equality but I feel like I want my humanity to be more than tolerated, right? We all want to be celebrated and valued for our contributions.
One of my human rights mentors who has been active here for a number of years, Sam Byrd who runs the Centre de Comunidad de Justicia, he once said that you tolerate a root canal but I want my life to be more than tolerated and that resonated with me.
Franklin: How do you work on the fear issue?
Herzfeld: I think interpersonal relationships and personal stories and really humanizing experiences is what breaks down those fears and those barriers in a most effective way.
So a lot of our work focuses on bringing together students from across divided societies, both in Idaho and internationally and we found that human rights is a framework for education and democracy is really the best tool for bringing together youth from across conflict.
Franklin: So many people look at that word human rights and it is just really loaded for them.
Herzfeld: I think it's important to talk about human rights as really the basic and fundamental protections that we all need to be able to take care of ourselves and our families. It is about creating a community, laws and a culture that allows us all to be fully human and I think that is sensible enough.
And I think when we look at the different provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that are really just about protecting families, that that resonates in Idaho.
Kids who come to the memorial can find Articles that they are surprised by, that they didn't realize was a basic human right. They can look at it and find places where they feel like their country is doing really well and other places where we still have a ways to go.
There are a number of articles that relate to immigration. Articles 13, 14, and 15 talk about freedom of movement, the right to multiple nationalities, the right to leave your country if you don't feel safe, the right to belong to another country.
Franklin: Tell me about some things you are most proud of.
Herzfeld: We're certainly proud of the network of educators we've built around the state who are committed to fostering a culture and climate of human rights in the school building. We've provided some really dynamic professional development to educators to increase human rights learning in the classroom to make sure that our schools are havens of social justice, that there is safety and inclusion for all students, and we hear from the teachers who have participated in our programs that it's has changed how they see their roles as an educator.
It has completely transformed their lens of how they teach, of how they walk into the classroom and we're really proud of that. We're really proud of that impact because we know that teachers can come into contact with as many as 100 students a day, so we feel like that is a place where we are really making a difference.
Franklin: If a lawmaker looked at your organization would they say you are trying to get these liberal themes into the classroom and into the minds of children?
Herzfeld: I don't think so. I don't think so. More often than not we hear from lawmakers and community members that our organization is really invaluable, that nobody else is doing the kind of work that we're doing.
And we really see human rights education as an umbrella for a number of other education areas including civic education, international education, Holocaust education, character education - that's all a piece of the puzzle and I think that those are areas that lawmakers really value.
Franklin: Idaho has a human rights curriculum in the schools that's the only one of its kind, right?
Herzfeld: As far as I know the K through 12 scope and sequence of human rights lessons that we developed is the only core human rights curriculum of its kind in the nation.
We developed it with Idaho teachers, they authored the lessons, it correlates to the state department of education standards for civic and character education and it is voluntary for teachers of course but there are a number of tremendous lessons that link to social studies, language arts and visual arts classrooms.
Franklin: What was your goal in developing a human rights curriculum?
Herzfeld: Our goal was to create a tool for teachers that would allow them to talk about human rights in a way that supported their other instruction in a way that crossed different curricular areas and would help them address controversial issues in the classroom help them identify tools for supporting human rights education as an over-arcing thing.
So if they are social studies teachers who are addressing world geography there are lessons that will talk about human rights issues in different countries they may be focusing on. If there are language arts teachers who are reading Holocaust literature there are lessons that will support them. If there are government teachers who are teaching about different laws there are lessons that will address the civil rights movement.
Franklin: Are you able to address gay and lesbian issues?
Herzfeld: We are. We've added LGBT issues to the human rights curriculum over the years. We've developed a number of lessons around LGBT equity. We have over sixty lessons that we've developed, not all of which are in our curriculum but are available in other curricular handbooks.
Franklin: In a state like Idaho do you get any feedback or concern from the State Department of Education about that?
Herzfeld: No, we haven't had any negative feedback. A lot of our work is really to create a culture and climate of human rights in the school, so that means that every student should be able to expect safety and respect in a school building.
Every parent should be able to expect that their student will be treated with full dignity in the classroom so we come at LGBT equity in a school building from a place of school safety and leadership development. That has been a really needed and welcomed perspective because a lot of administrators don't have the tools to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in their schools.
Franklin: Why did you help start the Idaho Safe School Coalition?
Herzfeld: We were hearing from teachers and administrators around the state that anti -LGBT student bullying was a reality in their schools and they didn't know what to do about it. They didn't have the strategies and the resources they needed.
We were also hearing from parents of gay children or even gay parents of straight children that they didn't feel like their families were welcomed in the school building, that educators who were gay themselves didn't feel safe being out and being mentors to the students who were coming to them for support.
We also knew that there were a number of student activists around the state in different schools who were trying to establish gay-straight alliances and were facing really hostility from their administrators for doing that. So we saw a real need for it to be addressed with some practical resources, some in-service training for educators and just some basic education work.
For the most part teachers are on the front lines of creating safety in their schools and they want to make sure that all their kids feel like they can reach their full potential.
We also realize that when communities are targeted in the school building it is probably because they are targeted in the society at large and we still have a number of laws on the books that target lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families limiting their equality and basic protections. Those families don't have the same protections that straight families do and so that trickles down to the school community.
When you have a state-wide ballot initiative that bans gay marriage, it legitimizes for young people that that is not a healthy or a valuable life.
Franklin: Where do you see the greatest challenges?
Herzfeld: There is a lot of room to grow and change when it comes to ensuring protection and fairness for our gay community but also our immigrant community. I think there is still a lot of racist and xenophobic ideology that we see in mainstream politics.
I think the issue that undocumented students who grow up in Idaho and graduate from Idaho high schools - often at the top of their class but can't go on to college in-state because they are undocumented -I think that is really a humanitarian tragedy and for us as a basic issue of education access. So I would like to see laws being more fair for everybody.
We certainly would like to see the Idaho Human Rights Act Amendment passed that would, add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class to our state antidiscrimination statute. That would protect people in a lot of fundamental ways. Right now it is still legal in Idaho to be fired for being gay or being perceived to be gay. There aren't protections in education and health care and public accommodation.
These are areas that impact people's lives in very real ways and we continue to see in polling among Idahoans that folks don't think it should be fair or legal to deny somebody a job or a house or access to higher education because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
We're certainly concerned about increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the state and seeing that reflected in policies that are introduced. We've seen a rash of anti-immigrant and xenophobic bills for the last few legislative sessions. For us it is important to talk about immigrant rights as human rights.
Franklin: Others would say that those illegal immigrants are taking away rights of Americans and other people who come here legally.
Herzfeld: We feel that that is a myth. We feel like undocumented immigrants contribute greatly to Idaho's economy and culture and society and that it isn't this sort of competition as if folks are taking things away from other community members, that in fact we're all contributing and it isn't a scarcity.
Franklin: David Duke came up and talked to north Idaho about white civil rights, white human rights and there are white people who feel like their human rights are getting lost.
Herzfeld: I think that that is the politics of fear and distraction. I also feel like a lot of what is fueling the current anti-immigrant debate - and to some extent the anti- LGBT movement - is this idea of who gets to call themselves an American, who gets to call themselves a family and this fear that what an American looks like and what a family looks like is shifting.
Franklin: And it is shifting.
Herzfeld: Absolutely -but it has always shifted, right? We've always been a country of immigrants and a country of different family combinations, but we do see over and over again wedge issues, very effective wedge issues that target communities that have nontraditional family structures as a way to turn out right wing voters.
Franklin: Do you monitor what hate groups are in the state and if you do is there any change in that right now?
Herzfeld: We monitor organized hate groups in a very limited way. We're not an organization that has the kind of anonymity to be able to do opposition research. We're a very public organization obviously with the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and we have a high profile in the schools and organization that are able to do effective opposition research on white supremacist movements need to have a little more security and privacy than we do as an organization.
So certainly we talk with other organizations that share our values to make sure we know what kind of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizing is occurring. We will hear from our partners in human rights task forces around the state if there are neo-Nazi flyers or leaflets that are found in their community.
Franklin: You had vandalism on the side of your building?
Herzfeld: We have experienced vandalism at both our center and the memorial. In both cases we didn't feel like it was an ideological attack. If somebody was targeting our organization or the memorial because they disagreed with our mission they would have left some statement to claim that.
The most significant vandalism we experienced was when the bronze statue of Anne Frank was tipped over, but again, the Boise police didn't characterize that as a hate crime because there wasn't any message left to that effect.
Franklin: Do you think if we hadn't been tagged as a state that promoted hate that ironically the memorial and center wouldn't have happened?
Herzfeld: It could be. The notoriety of the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho is certainly part of the narrative of why the memorial and the center is here, but it is not the only piece of that story. In fact when some of the memorial founders first got together to talk about creating a human rights monument in our area it was in 1994, around the same time as the statewide anti-gay initiative and that was very much on their minds.
And when they brought the Anne Frank in the World exhibit to the Idaho Historical Museum there were a number of protesters, some white supremacist protesters. One of our docents always says that those protesters pissed off the wrong three women and those founding mothers decided that they couldn't let that reputation stand.
Franklin: Does the memorial make a statement about Idaho?
Herzfeld: Absolutely. Absolutely. We're trying to rewrite the story of Idaho with the memorial.
to a place that is, that values inclusion and diversity and human dignity and wants to protect and promote everyone's human rights.
Ulises Sanchez of Weiser High talks with Holocaust survivor Rose Beal
at the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise.
Franklin: Is Idaho changing?
Herzfeld: I think so. I think so. I think the conversations that are happening at the school level are really, really powerful and really positive and I think - we have this network of teachers around the state who care about human rights that want to make that vision a reality in their classrooms. So I see positive movement.
We've also seen laws expand in the state to be more inclusive of communities that have been left out so while there are a lot of challenges ahead I do see that in the time that I've grown up in Idaho that there has been forward momentum and there are a number of strong organizations that work on social justice and human rights issues.
We're particularly grateful at the Human Rights Education Center that even in a time of economic crisis there is enough support from the community to sustain our work so we feel like the community is invested in these ideas and these programs.
Franklin: So you are privately funded?
Herzfeld: We are entirely privately funded. We don't receive any money from the government. So it is always a struggle to sustain our work but we feel like the community doesn't want to let us go away.
Franklin: Why are you so passionate about what you do?
Herzfeld: My passion for social justice probably started in my youth. I started volunteering for different organizations that I believed in, working on different campaigns, particularly ballot initiatives when I saw that communities I cared about were being attacked.
Initially working on campaigns and organizations as a young person was a place where I could be taken seriously, which isn't always the case in junior high, especially when you already feel marginalized. And from there I built a community of activists that I really felt comfortable with and social justice I feel like is core to my being.
Franklin: Where does that come from?
Herzfeld: I think some of it comes from my family. I grew up in a family that talked about social justice issues around the dinner table and I think that contributed to my value system and my intellectual curiosity.
I also am personally passionate about human rights and social justice because I feel like I belong to a community that is targeted. I identify as a queer woman. I also have tremendous empathy and relationships with other communities that are targeted for institutional oppression so it is a personal and professional commitment.
Social justice has always been a core part of my identity. I feel like I'd be doing this work no matter what. I feel really lucky to be paid as a human rights advocate.
Franklin: Is this next generation just going to go full bore ahead and some of these things will fall by the wayside?
Herzfeld: I certainly hope so. I see tremendous confidence and optimism in the youth that we work with, that they can change the world, they can influence public policy, they can shift the paradigm. And that's what we want to see. We want every Idaho student to grow up feeling like they can make a difference; they can reach their full potential. So that is the hopefulness that we like to hear. They're going to change the laws.
Franklin: Are you proud to be from Idaho?
Herzfeld: I am. I am absolutely proud to be an Idahoan. I'm still here and there were times in my twenties as a young professional where I felt like I probably had better opportunities as an advocate in bigger communities but this is where I want to be. This is where the change needs to happen. I really feel like the struggle is here for me and it is right where I want to be.
Human rights is for human beings. It's for everybody.
Marshall Mend is a successful realtor in the Coeur d'Alene area. He was one of the original members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and came up with many promotional ideas, including billboards and posters promoting human rights. He also spoke out against the Aryan Nations, despite being Jewish and having received threats. He spoke with Marcia Franklin in September, 2010, during the 10th anniversary of the verdict that bankrupted the Aryan Nations.
Marcia Franklin: Were you ever threatened while working on this issue?
Marshall Mend: Had the FBI come to my house a couple of times, told me I was on a hit list, told me to check my car, look behind, look in front, look on the sides, look underneath.
Franklin: And that didn't deter you?
Mend: I guess I wasn't that bright. Deterred my wife, deterred my daughter. They were real concerned. I didn't give it much thought. I remember we were having some trouble with a house that we had purchased one time. I lost sleep over that house. I never lost sleep over the Aryan Nations - ever. I just didn't.
Franklin: You were a big believer in the importance of promotion, of having billboards, of having bumper stickers that had a motto on it. Why?
Mend: Well, you know when you get an image the only way to erase an image is to build a bigger image that takes care of the other image.
When you think about Kent State what do you remember? You can ask that to people who weren't even born when that happened and they will tell you about the students that were killed by the National Guard and they never did anything to get rid of that image.
Our number of racists is very small in the state of Idaho but what Richard Butler did - he did a real good job of promoting the Aryan Nations-- and the press picked up on it and Nazis sell newspapers.
Franklin: One of your thoughts during that time was to create a motto that would have been on license plates: "Idaho: The Human Rights State." Many people would say that doesn't describe Idaho. Do you still think it does?
Mend: Absolutely. Do I think everybody in Idaho supports human rights? No, I don't, but I believe that most of the people in Idaho support human rights.
Franklin: What do you think the image is now of Idaho?
Mend: I think it is much better than it was before. I think the trial made a big difference in our image. But there are some people who still remember the Nazis and they still think that they're here. I think ethnic people feel it more than white people but even white people - white Anglo-Saxon protestants, some of them remember the Nazis and still think that they are still here. The trial though was major. The trial made a great big difference.
My idea for Coeur d'Alene is I think that Coeur d'Alene should be the human rights capital of the world. And I think we're doing some things to help make Coeur d'Alene the human rights capital of the world and I think one day we will be - maybe not the capital -- but let's just say one of the human rights capitals of the world.
Franklin: I have talked to people moving here who say it's because it's white.
Mend: Their thought is when you have minorities you have crime, and crime doesn't come from minorities. Crime comes from poverty. That's where it comes from.
Franklin: So when you say you never lost sleep over Richard Butler, is that because you didn't think he was bright enough to do anything?
Mend: Yeah, originally I didn't think he was bright at all. I thought he was - I did not have much respect for him. I think I really underestimated the guy. He seemed like a nut case as far as I was concerned, preaching the things that he did, talking about the things that he did the way he talked, but he was pretty smart about a whole lot of things that he did.
I used to think that anybody that was a racist was stupid but they're not - but they have one thing in common - all the people that are racist - and that's self-image. They do not have a real good self-image because if they've got a good self-image they don't need to put somebody else down.
But they need somebody to hate. Whenever there's a problem and things go bad, that's when racism comes up and they have to have somebody to blame - the Jews, the Blacks, the Mexicans.
Today…we're looking at hating the Mexicans like all of a sudden now every Hispanic is now a drug dealer. That's not the way it is. Every Hispanic isn't.
We need to change our immigration laws and we need to make it easier for immigrants to come into this country. White, black, brown, yellow, whatever but making it easier for them. Immigrants make the best Americans.
Franklin: So is that where you see some of our challenges lying now?
Mend: Probably one of the biggest challenges we have today is the gay issue. That is probably one of the toughest things. There are a lot of people who just have strong feelings about--that gays are not real human beings. And I'm a great believer that about ten percent of our population is gay. Somebody once told me God doesn't make any mistakes. He made us, he made them; he made me, made all of us.
Franklin: Your group did so much. Is there something that stands out for you?
Mend: The trial was a major, major thing, but we could have done it in 1986 and we didn't. It was one of the biggest mistakes that we ever made. And at that time Bill Wassmuth who was a Catholic priest at the time, when his house was bombed we had a good way to get rid of him at that point. Morris Dees even contacted us to say that we could do it and Bill did not want to involve the church into the mix. And Bill said about I think it was right around the trial I was talking to him and he said that the biggest mistake that he ever made was not going after the Aryans in 1986, that we could have gotten rid of them then.
Franklin: Do you miss him?
Mend: I do. Yeah. He was a mentor, a friend and he's a human rights hero. He is just great. I remember so many things that we did together. I remember going to Spokane with him and we're going to go talk to a minister over there who was heading up the Spokane Human Rights Task Force and they wanted to talk to us about gay people and Bill said "You know something? We're focused on human rights, race, religion, creed. We're not getting into the gay issue." Right on. I'm with you 100 percent.
And we get over there and we listen to this guy's story and we're driving home and he looks at me and I look at him and there is no way we could not be involved in it because all it is is hatred and it's the same kind of hatred that you have in race, religion, gender, whatever. Hate is hate.
Franklin: What if someone said to you, "I have a lot on my plate already. Why should I care about human rights issues?" What would you say?
Mend: Human rights is for human beings. It's for everybody. That's who human rights is for. No special rights for anybody, it's just human rights for human beings.
Not all human beings "except." It is for all human beings. We all deserve human rights. Doesn't matter what they are. We might not agree with them, but they have the same human rights. They don't have any extra human rights but they have the same rights that we all have.
Franklin: What was it like to go to the compound?
Mend: That was not nice. I did not like it. I never went back. I have never been back since.
It's kind of like - I don't think I want to go to Auschwitz, you know? I would not feel comfortable going there.
Franklin: Did you get involved because of Sid Rosen? Is that how you got involved?
Mend: That was the first thing that came up. The only reason I got involved in the beginning… was for me, not for anybody else, OK? I got involved because I was a Jew and here's a group of Nazis that I found out about right after I moved here. If I would have heard the word Nazi before I came to Coeur d'Alene I would have never considered Coeur d'Alene.
We lost millions and millions of dollars of people who didn't come to Coeur d'Alene that we don't even know about, that we can't even imagine because of the people who were like me.
And we lost millions of dollars in tourism dollars of people who wouldn't come to Coeur d'Alene because of the image that we had.
We lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the economic development of companies that would have moved here but didn't move here, didn't even consider us because of the Aryan Nations image.
I remember when we did our billboard campaign I had the Association of Realtors sponsor that billboard campaign and we put them all over the state. Idaho is for everybody. We had this picture of all different kinds of races and it was a great billboard.
One of Bill Wassmuth's greatest statements that he ever came up with was "Saying yes to human rights is the best way to say no to racism and bigotry." And that's a creed that we live by and I live by, and that is really the truth -saying yes to human rights is the best way to say no to racism and bigotry.
I believe that the people, core people that worked on eliminating this evil - and that's what it was, the Aryan Nations - they would not give up.
John and Idaho Purce are African-Americans from Pocatello, ID. Idaho is a native Idahoan, and John is from the south. The two were active in human rights issues: John was the director of the local chapter of the NAACP for almost two decades, and Idaho Purce sat on the first Idaho Commission on Human Rights. They have vivid memories of discrimination in Pocatello, and talked with Marcia Franklin about that and other human rights issues.
Marcia Franklin: Idaho, What do you remember about discrimination growing up in Pocatello?
Idaho Purce: There was a movie theatre, the Rialto theatre….we were delegated to the last six rows in the theatre on your left-hand side. And not only was it the African-Americans delegated to those seats, but the Mexican-Americans and native people.
So if you went to the movies on a Saturday and if you were not there early to occupy one of those seats in those six rows on the left side…it mattered not how many empty seats were anywhere else in this theatre, you could not sit anywhere, but in those designated seats.
We accepted it; we didn't know anything, you know, we had no consciousness of civil rights or actually being discriminated against…we never talked about that, because our real life was so rich and so full and not separate and we just all felt we belonged, we were home together.
Franklin: Did you realize there was an active KKK in Pocatello?
Idaho: I did not know until later years…I know that my father and many other African -American men would get on the roof…of the Methodist church…with their shotguns….to protect the streets as the Klan rode down 3rd street and terrorized all of this area here.
We learned that the individual who was head of the telephone company was in charge of the Ku Klux Klan and they had a way of identifying each other in the phone directory, they had a code.
Franklin: John, what was your experience?
John: The railroad had a policy that at that time…there were certain jobs that African-Americans could hold and Mexican-Americans could hold. They were the lower paying jobs and you know the most labor kind of a job. We were not allowed to join the different crafts unions and so consequently you know you were stuck with laboring jobs.
I've always been aware of segregation because I feel it's morally wrong and I feel it's something that has been a detriment to this country, because so many people that's qualified don't get an opportunity to, to you know reach their potential.
You couldn't buy a house in certain places and there's very few restaurants that you could eat at that would serve African-American people….and the same was meant for the Mexican- American and Native Americans, who was (sic) treated the shabbiest of all. You know, they're the only ones that I can remember seeing signs in the windows: "No Indians allowed."
Franklin: How did you cope with it?
John: There's not much you can do; you just have to put it behind you and persevere, you know.
I remember trying to buy a house and being told I can't buy that, or going into a place and they say "You know we can't serve you here." I remember those things; they'll always be with me.
Idaho: I've always felt that because of the migration of southern white people to Pocatello that they brought all of those prejudices that they knew and had done and the way they had lived in the south here out west.
Franklin: Why did you stay?
Idaho: I liked Pocatello and this is home for me. This was home; this was all I knew.
In 1957, Idaho Purce became involved in the Pocatello Civil Rights Committee, started by some professors at Idaho State University and the local chapter of the NAACP. In the 1960s, the group tested the new civil rights laws.
Idaho: The white members would go into a restaurant and sit down and they would serve 'em and then some African-American person would go behind them and sit down and they'd say, "I'm sorry we don't," and they would be told, "You can't do that, there is a national law, civil rights law that says you, this public accommodation, you cannot discriminate, you have to serve everyone."
You change things through education. You bring the law, the legislation forth and say "This is against the law, you cannot do this; this carries a penalty to an employer."
And one thing about employers, when you talk about money and dollars and their liability, they all at once want to listen to what you have to say and "How can we correct this?" And that's what I always wanted to hear 'em say, because then you could help 'em correct it in the right way.
Franklin: You were on the first Human Rights Commission. Tell me how that came about.
Idaho: I was working in Job Service. I received a call one day at work from the governor's office asking if I would serve on that human rights commission and that was my interest so I course yes--(I'll) be there tomorrow! No, I didn't really say that, but that's the way I felt.
Franklin: Could you identify with the people who came before the commission? For instance, was there any job that you wanted that you were not able to have?
Idaho: Oh, yes; I knew what that was like to be rejected based on your color. For many years I worked at SH Crest, a 5 and 10 store. I did every job in the establishment; I worked there 14 years. I started out dusting the counters, lifting up the lotions and dusting; that was my first job.
Then they thought I did that very well, so they told me that I could go up and be a stock clerk, so I went to the stock room. Well, when you're in the stock room where you're in all the merchandise and know where everything is; that makes you pretty important I guess to management.
So I did that, and then they asked me if I'd go down and help cashier count the money so I did that. And there came an occasion where the cashier was going to leave and I asked the manager if I could apply for that job. I was doing it and I knew the job well, and he told me no, that I could not be hired because I was black.
So that really hit home. You know, when you did all these jobs and you worked so well with other people that were white and you knew more than they knew, you never saw yourself as…"I can't ask for this job because I'm black." I guess I never saw myself as black…in that world.
Franklin: When you heard about the Aryan Nations did you take it seriously?
John: I took it very seriously….they chose Idaho because of this lack of minority population because it was one of the few states left in the union that was predominantly white.
It was very frightening because there's a lot of people that believed in that too; you know you also have to be realistic about it. White supremacy is something that's pretty prevalent in our society and you have to be aware of that.
Franklin: Did you feel a threat even though they were up north?
Idaho: Oh yes, but you know in Pocatello we had signs that they were here too. The Aryan compound was at Hayden Lake, but their followers were all throughout Idaho, they were here in Pocatello. We had a church out on Center Street that was one of their little branches so we had individuals working, an individual working at the post office that was an Aryan Nation.
Franklin: Did you ever think they'd be gone?
John: I think they're not completely gone now, but they have certainly been diminished to where they're not a threat anymore; you know nobody wants to say they belong to 'em anymore.
Franklin: What was it like to go on the compound?
Idaho: The moment I walked across that gate I was very weak, I felt as though I was on evil. I felt the evilness under my feet and I just didn't know what to do, and sometimes when you don't know what to do you cry and Bill (Wassmuth) was so strong and he you know whispered in my ear "It's all right, this is what we're here for."
What reduced Butler for me was when I walked into his home and to his kitchen and I saw where….they must've said "You leave with nothing." All of his medicines were on the counter, all his clothes--I mean they just walked in and said "You're out of here now; take nothing with you." And how that must've reduced him if he was a person that had any real feelings about what was occurring.
I believe that the people, core people that worked on eliminating this evil - and that's what it was, the Aryan Nations - they would not give up. They knew it was necessary and they would look for every means to bring it to a closure, to wipe out the compound and hopefully sell the land or do something.
Franklin: Do you think there was a higher power involved in what eventually happened?
Idaho: Of course there was a higher power involved because the pieces of that puzzle….just to think this mother and this witness were not a part of any organization…they were just there. They were just placed there at that point in time so that they could come forth to testify.
John, what lessons have we learned from this?
John: I think it shows you that a few people can do a lot of good things.
Franklin: Where are the new challenges?
John: There are a lot of injustices being aimed at the Hispanic culture. And of course you know, we're all in the same boat together. What affects one of us affects the other.
I think we need to work on education. I think that's the most important thing that we can do to make sure that minority populations are available to be educated because i really feel that's the key to the success of minorities..
Is the fight over? Did you win?
John: Not by any means. There's so much more.
Idaho: I don't think we won because as I said, the Aryan Nations, their compound, their headquarters was at Hayden Lake, but they have little pockets of people all over the state…and I think that at some point somewhere in our state they are going to….rise again and become very visible and begin terrorizing and killing and whatever they do and will do and it will be directed at gay and lesbian people and Mexican- Americans over this immigration issue which is for many people that "they are taking our social services, they are taking, they are taking from us."
Franklin: John, you said there is so much more to do?
John: Yes. There is so much more to do. And I don't know; I don't see a person, a group of persons who are really doing much to prepare for it.
Somebody asked me once, "What are you trying to do, buy back the reservation? I said "Duh, why not?" That was land that was set aside for us, was supposed to be forever and it's not.
Marcia Franklin: Did the Aryan Nations concern you as a potential threat?
Ernie Stensgar: I think the potential was there....when things were happening in Coeur d'Alene ...is it safe for us to go to Coeur d'Alene anymore? We don't want to be accosted and maybe we should stay in Spokane and keep doing our shopping up there and that was kind of the response that we were getting.
There was almost a fear that was prevalent on the reservation here. Although maybe no direct threats were there the imminent threats were there so people were concerned about that.
Franklin: Did you ever meet Butler?
Stensgar: No, I never did. We were presenting our lake case - we were going to court with Coeur d'Alene Lake and we had a presentation at the Federal courthouse in Coeur d'Alene and we were registering at the time and they came in force - the Aryan Nations did.
They had their uniforms on, their Nazi-style regalia if you will. About four or five of them came in dressed like that, and he was in a suit and tie. Of course they came up there but they didn't say anything in the meeting. They just stood back as an ominous threat if that's what they were trying to do, but they were more of a curiosity I believe than anything.
Franklin: As a state how have we progressed with tribal relations?
Stensgar: Number one I guess is the leadership recognizes the tribe's treaties, recognizes the sovereignty of the Coeur d'Alene tribe - the tribes in Idaho. The made public statements and they're saying that out loud and that goes a long way for acceptance by people, especially by bureaucracy.
But then the other aspect, I think the Human Rights Task Force took the lead in Idaho in the human rights arena trying to educate people about the Indian tribes in Idaho. Who are these people? They have a culture that is maybe different, but they should have the same respect that everyone has.
....but maybe in smaller cities....there is still the stereotype, there's still the racism that is there. It's readily available, just take a step with me some time and I'll show you.
Franklin: How does it manifest?
Stensgar: Personally, my wife and I were driving from St. Mary's Idaho to Coeur d'Alene - the scenic route - and just between I think Harrison and the freeway there's an elk farm that we had stopped and a group of young Caucasians, young adults were there and they saw us and as we were driving they drove their pickup truck right next to me and shadowed me and they made war whoops and other gestures that weren't very nice to us and as we stopped - we tried to let them go - they wouldn't go, they just stayed with us and they finally broke off.
Then we hit the freeway to go to Coeur d'Alene and they caught up to us and on the freeway - and were doing the same thing again - I used my cell phone and called the Idaho State Police and gave them the license number and I never heard anything from the state police or anything.
My wife was - I wouldn't say terrified but she was scared and I was very anxious. We didn't know what to expect from them.
I think other people have experienced verbatim slapping faces from people who accosted them, saying things about Indians, calling them bucks or squaws or hearing that in the conversation.
Franklin: That's a hate crime. Does that ever get pursued?
Stensgar: I don't believe so. I think over the years we've become thick-skinned. We native people here living on the reservation, we have border towns around us. We live in a community here so we've experienced prejudice throughout our lives and we just ignore it.
Franklin: Have you ever been followed in a store?
Stensgar: Shadowed? We call it shadowing. Yeah, we have, we have. My daughter Shirley and I were in Macy's and nearly picked up. The lady asked us if we needed help and we said no we wanted to browse, look around and we walked around, looked around but she was with us all the time. Just with you. I look at other patrons in the store and they weren't being followed, you know. That's shadowing and I'm not the only one who experiences that.
There is that sporting goods store and we were in there and shadowed again and asking us if we had enough money to pay an item which really upset me to say the least.
Talking to the Human Rights (Task Force) and having Tony and them deal with it really helped. And I think a lot of our people have spoken too, saying "Geez we're going up there now and we're being treated a lot differently and now things are working out really well."
Franklin: The tribe is quite powerful economically now. You have the casino, the wellness center; you've just gotten stimulus money. We can point to any number of industries you have and you donate money back into the system, not to mention the lake. Do you think that is showing progress in how you are being treated, or is that just showing determination on the part of the tribe?
Stensgar: I think a little bit of both. I think determination of the tribe but also it allows the tribe to utilize tools - today's tools - to tell our story a little bit, to educate people to where we're going.
For instance, we have issues with the state of Idaho now...and we spend money to go down and lobby our efforts and tell why we're doing things.
When we were doing our gaming initiative the Idaho State Legislature didn't want gaming in Idaho and said no to it, and no matter what kind of story we told them they were just opposed to it.
So we went to the people and as we went across the state of Idaho we found people who were listening to us and asking proper questions - I mean proper questions by not insulting you, but really wanted to know - who the tribe was and what we were doing and what we were going to do with the dollars.
And when they found that out they said "Hey, you know you were put there and you have a treaty and you're not doing anything bad, you're trying to work on behalf of your people, so why not allow you to have gaming?"
And I think education has gone a long way in helping people understand who we are.
Franklin: You were at the 10th anniversary of the verdict, the Aryan Nations verdict. Has the problem gone away now that the Aryan Nations is gone?
Stensgar: Clearly it hasn't. If you read the media and you look at the crosses that are being burned and the propaganda that is being spread on individual lawns you know that it hasn't gone away. It is still there, it's just not as prevalent as it was. I think it will always be there and I think we'll always have to be on the lookout for it.
Franklin: In your talk that day you said we need to remember who we are. And you mentioned religious freedom as one of those things. What did you mean by that?
Stensgar: In the Indian world we have the sweats and so a lot of our people belong to the Native American Church and where peyote is utilized and frowned upon negatively. But people should be able to proclaim their god if you will any way they want and that is granted in the constitution of the United States.
We're all citizens, albeit we were Johnny-come-lately to become Americans but we're here so we're going to stay there.
It isn't special treatment that we're getting. Ceded land that doesn't belong to the tribe that was ceded to the United States government wasn't ceded, it was taken from us at the point of a gun so in actuality it was stolen land.
People use these really nice words about it - this is ceded land, allotted land, the Homestead Act. Well, those were all breaking treaties and we know that. So the tribes are making do with what they have in the best way they can and we think we're doing it. But people have to realize that.
We don't want to hurt anybody but right now we think we have to be forceful in acquiring what we want.
Somebody asked me once, "What are you trying to do, buy back the reservation? I said "Duh, why not?" That was land that was set aside for us, was supposed to be forever and it's not.
So people coming onto the reservation and living here is good. I think watching my children unite with the non-Indian community and be friends is good for everyone. I think there is understanding there and they get along a lot better but I think it took a lot of, a lot of hard work by a lot of extraordinary people for them to get to that point.
Franklin: The other thing you said was our immigrations policies - we really need to look hard at them. What were you trying to say there?
Stensgar: Nobody was addressing the Mexican problem, the Mexicans who are coming into the state of Idaho. Addressing it in a good way, in a respectful way, in a dignified way for everyone's benefit.
And clearly nobody wants bad people no matter what color they are. We want people who are hardworking, who would become good citizens, who would contribute to everyone's lifestyle and I think that there are Mexican people who do that.
I don't see anybody coming into Idaho from those people who don't want to work. I think the prices that we have for some of our foods are down because of those people and people ought to understand that.
I think they were taken advantage of in some ways and used and I think that the United States and I think the state of Idaho needs to take a really hard look at the immigration policy and make it right.
And if we want to keep people out, sure let's keep them out, but let's deal with those people who came in who have become good models and deal in a good way so that they can be here within the law and we can keep tabs on them but understand them and give them the dignity they deserve.
Everybody wants education. It's a foundation. Education, religious freedom, the right to live the American dream is here and everybody who comes to this country wants that. We don't want the drug people here; we don't want those kinds of people, but let's be really careful in how we go about this. But let's do it.
I didn't know the Mexican people. I didn't know them until recently. When we were doing our initiative, our gaming initiative, we reached out to the Latino community in Boise...and so from that meeting we were able to build a relationship with the Latino people.
Then we tried to form a political relationship with them that would further our causes. Those causes are education, housing, safety. So we found out that we had relations there.
..and as we talked we became very forthright to each other and we had stereotypes about the Mexican people - Indians did, and Mexican people have stereotypes about Indian people so we were able to talk about that.
And we recognized that....they were native people, that they were native to the continent and they felt like their land was stolen from them and I said "Hello, brother." And here we are.
So we had those meetings. We called them the Native American-Latino conference. I called it the Tortilla-Fried Bread conference. We had a lot of fun there. Getting to know those people and learning their work ethic, learning how much they thought about their families I could really relate to them and thought "Geez what a beautiful people they are, what a beautiful culture they have. Why are people so scared of them?" It makes one wonder.
I just believe that we should deal with them in a dignified way and a lawful way and at least get something on the books and let's deal with these people. Let's help them.
Franklin: Tribes take a long view. Where do you think we are right now?
Stensgar: When we first meet the Americans they try to kill us. Then they herd us up and put us onto the reservations and then we became show pieces and then we become those people who need to be dealt with. And the poverty programs game to us.
Now it is a different respect that we're getting. The wars happened and people recognize Native Americans' contributions to the different war theaters and the respect came from that.
I think politically tribes now have ventured forth into a more economic world. They are contributing more to political coffers as well as to private coffers and there is respect from that and people are saying "Hey, want to partner up? You want to talk about these issues? You want to come over here and think about these things?"
So I think there has been a little more emergence of the tribes into the world and more recognition of the tribes.
Franklin: I would like to think it's not just money.
Stensgar: Well yeah, I would too, I would too; but money opened the doors definitely. Money opened the doors.
We're just going to pay attention to what we have and get back what was promised to us. And we want to educate our people, we want them to realize the American dream. We want them to have a good way of living, want them to be good citizens and do what they want in this country in a good way.
Franklin: What is the significance of the war memorial the tribe built?
Stensgar: I thought back into the history of our tribe and they look at some of the people on that memorial as patriots. They fought the fight to preserve their land, to protect their families, to protect their homelands. They were killed for that. Then later on as we became citizens we still fought to protect our homeland and our way of life.
And today we're still doing it. We still have men and women in the armed forces serving throughout the world so there is kind of a feeling of patriotism for our country and the laws that we have. The treaties that we have with the United States government have to be protected. The constitution of the United States has to be protected because it allows that and that way it protects all of our peoples.
I don't view us as a warrior culture but it is important that our people - especially our young people - know that their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers, their grandmothers, their mothers and fathers are fighting today and have always fought for this country. That it means something and that we should be proud of those people and really look at them as role models for what they did and who they were.
Franklin: What is the legacy of the people who worked on getting rid of the Aryan Nations?
Stensgar: I think it shows the spirit of humanity, the compassion that they have for people. they were able to reach out into the community and reach into people's hearts and say is this what you want people? Do you want a white supremacy group here? And of course people responded and said no we don't. But it took those leaders to get them to respond.
Franklin: What about the conditions that tribal members still live in?
Stensgar: It's atrocious. We have second world countries in the United States. I was able to go to Rapid City, this winter I think. I went down there for a national congress of American Indian meeting and we drove. And we drove through I think Northern Cheyenne (tribal land). I just couldn't believe the conditions that they lived in and I felt bad when I drove through there.
How can people in this day and age be treated like this or live like this? How can the United States government that is supposed to have the trust responsibility of these people allow that to happen?
Clearly, some tribes still need that help, they still need those dollars; they still need those government agencies to protect them and to make sure that they can reach those heights that they need to.....to live in the squalor that they are living in isn't right.
Franklin: How is it in Idaho?
Stensgar: I think we've come a long way. I still think we've allowed ghettos if you will to happen by our housing projects.
When I met with Governor Batt a few years ago I took him up into a housing project here in Plummer, right here in Plummer. I drove him there and it was the middle of the afternoon during the week day and we parked and I said, "Look Governor, see that basketball court?"
I didn't script this in any way, but there were young men out there, strong men out there playing basketball in the middle of the afternoon during a week day. I said "Those men out there they have families, they have kids. They should be working. They shouldn't be out there playing basketball, they should have something to do and there's nothing for them to do."
I said that's why we need gaming to help us so we can minister to them. And that wasn't very long ago. That was just recently that was happening. Today there are still adults who are out there playing basketball and we haven't reached them yet but we will, because we have the means to do it now and there aren't that many anymore.
When I was growing up these bars would be full of Indian people who were laying out there on the streets passed out drinking themselves into oblivion. They had no place to go. They had no spirit. Now you can drive through the town and you can look at the bars in any of our communities and you don't see the drunken Indian there.
I'm not saying it isn't there, it's just that more people have work now and it's not glorified....they're chastised as a matter of fact. "Hey, get a job, hey go to work or hey why don't you get to a treatment center, we can help you, or come join our group." We can address these issues.
Franklin: Those things didn't happen because the state helped you.
Stensgar: No. We have a little saying in the tribe - Nobody is going to help us. We have to do things for ourselves because nobody is going to come in and do it for us and so it is up to us to do it.
Franklin: You had to sue.
Stengar: We had to sue; we had to fight. We had to fight. But we changed Governor Batt's mind. And he became a staunch supporter of the tribe in the gaming area too.
Franklin: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Stensgar: I think we have a long way to go. I think that Native people need to understand other people too.
Franklin: You mean reach out the other way?
Stensgar: Right. I think we have to be understanding of other people as well. If we want people to understand us then we need to understand them. We have to respect other people's culture, other people's way of life, if we expect them to understand ours.
When history is recorded, it is never kind to...those who engaged in hate and prejudice and bigotry, and it's not very kind for those who sit on the sidelines.
Tony Stewart, a native of North Carolina, was a professor of political science at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene for 40 years. He was one of the first people to join the support group that would become the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. Stewart designed much of the group's public relations strategy, which included counter-rallies to the Aryan Nations' Congresses and parades, and the "Lemons to Lemonade" campaign. He spoke with producer Marcia Franklin in 2010.
Marcia Franklin: What influenced you to care about other people?
Tony Stewart...there were two incidents happened that I've never forgotten. I was playing with some other young boys and we were about eight or nine and one of them was African-American and some white boys came along and threatened to beat us up because we were playing together. That stayed with me.
Secondly… my parents invited this beautiful woman who was a great vocalist such as Mahalia Jackson…to come to western North Carolina to perform at our church…and the Deacon said, "she's not allowed in this church" and they had to tell her she could not come. I have never forgotten that.
…since I was very young I've always been so bothered by injustices of all types. As a young boy - nine and ten - I was writing to my Congressman asking him to vote for Civil Rights Legislation which they would not do.
Franklin: When did you first become aware of Richard Butler?
Stewart: Richard Butler came to north Idaho in 1973, but we were not very aware at the beginning about him. He stayed rather quiet for a period of time, kind of surveying the field. But by the late 1970's from appearances at the courthouse with he and others and the Christian Comitatus became very aware that we had something to face that was far beyond what one would experience talking to an individual who had prejudice and bigotry, that this was going to be organized.
And of course it all broke loose in 1980 and from then until now we've been immersed in this issue.
Franklin: What were they doing?
Stewart: …. there was a group they called the Christian Comitatas and…they were having common laws that they would enforce and they did not recognize government officials. And they were even trying to put liens on properties of government officials (saying) that they had a right to their own juries and so forth. So we saw that it was very extreme.
And then with the two incidents took place at the end of 1980 we knew we had something that was very, very serious.
First was the issue at Hayden Lake with Sid Rosen's restaurant being targeted with anti-Semitic materials and very quickly after that the bi-racial family in Coeur d'Alene - The Connie Fort family - and I was immediately contacted about that by their oldest son.
I want to give credit to a special lady - Deena Tanner, who was Jewish and their community moved very quickly and she said we have to organize to go out and meet with Sid Rosen. And I didn't know about it that evening but the fifteen wonderful citizens went out there. She called me the next day and she said Tony, this is very serious and I shared with her the Connie Fort incident and so she and I together agreed that we must be organized.
So, the first week of February, 1981 we met at the First Christian Church - about eight of us and by the way, the Aryan Nations were in the back walking back and forth trying to intimidate us, eight or ten people. And that was the birth of our organization.
I hope the background I had coming from the south was somewhat helpful to understanding the seriousness of those issues because I'd seen prejudice and bigotry up close there also and hate but not in the same organized way that we would face it here.
I was of the opinion then as now that immediate action was necessary and I was so pleased to join forces with that wonderful woman who I call the mother of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. She saw that we needed to act immediately.
It is not something that was called a long range plan. It wasn't strategic plan. It was something we did through experience and our commitment to the principles of human rights.
Franklin: You felt it was necessary to act immediately to get the word out in the community that these things had happened, not to try and hide them.
Stewart: How do you deal with hate and how do you deal with organized hate? We made two decisions at the inception of the organization that we've held for thirty years and I think those contribute to our success and support of the people.
The first one we agreed to was that we would never remain silent in the face of hate. If we learned anything about the history of Germany and Hitler when he started out with less than a dozen people, they made the fatal error of not taking him serious at first. So we would never remain silent. We never have.
The second decision we made that we would determine our own agenda and that when hate groups met or did activities we would never attend any function they put on. We would not confront them face to face - not out of lack of courage, but we felt that that was really a vital mistake.
But we would react at the same time and we would have functions that would overwhelm their function at a different location and we based that upon the strategies of that brilliant man Martin Luther King, Junior and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
And I said in a number of speeches when we were challenged by some other civil rights groups criticizing us for not confronting them at a march or up at the compound; I said if you can show us one time that Dr. King and his followers ever went to a Klan rally we'll change strategy. He was too intelligent to do that.
He never attended anything they did, but when he marched to the State Capitol for voting rights or even sit-in at counters, whatever he did, he set the date, the time and the agenda and hate groups such as the Klan might be on the sideline but they were reacting to him. So those are two strategies we've followed for thirty years.
Marcia Franklin: How long was it after you started getting involved in this issue that you actually met Richard Butler?
Stewart: We saw him at a distance of course during this time. After these incidents took place he started operating on two different levels. One was the Aryan Nations which is his political arm, and then he created what he called the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. What fascinated a lot of his followers and the media was that this was very unusual to have a political organization and a religious organization. Certainly Adolf Hitler didn't do the religious part.
He started speaking out from the compound; he started going to meetings, and I think that I first observed him at a public gathering somewhere in the mid-1980's.
Franklin: What was your sense of him?
Stewart: ….when they would speak out at any of these rallies, (there was) tremendous anger fueled by the prejudice and hatred, and I also observed that there was always such a non-gleeful or happy look. I never saw smiling.
They were very confrontational oriented. In fact in one of the incidents I had brought to North Idaho College a performing artist from Los Angeles and she did characters from different minority groups and we'd just started the performance….and about five minutes in we got a call that there was a bomb in the building. We had to exit the building and while we were outside Richard Butler and some of his followers came up the sidewalk and said "what is the problem?" and we were able to trace that the call had been made at a phone on campus in a phone booth.
And once we had cleared everything we went back in and we started the performance again. And I told this young woman "You'll give your greatest performance of your life." And I said to the audience, and he was there - and I said "We will not be intimidated." That was the first time that I received a death threat that night about three in the morning on my phone.
M - Did you ever talk with him personally just the two of you?
Stewart: No, I did not.
Franklin: Was that a conscious choice not to sit down with him?
Stewart: Yes. Some of us made a decision. Bill Wassmuth and I in particular, that we would never appear in a joint appearance or debate with him. But I was really challenged on the First Amendment in relation to that so two of his young cohorts called me once and said "You will never allow Richard Butler to speak at what was called the Popcorn Forum ," which I coordinated, "because you don't believe in free speech. "
I had a real difficult decision, so what I did, I called my great friend Glen Walker the prosecutor and said "Will you debate him?" And Glen said, "I rather would not, but we cannot let the First Amendment suffer can we?"
I set up the debate between them and Glen prepared with religious leaders and legal and all and it was very, very fair. Each one got twenty minutes to speak. At the end of that there would be questions and we'd rotate.
If Richard Butler spoke first on the first question then Glen would the second question. And Glen destroyed him in the debate.
In fact that debate is an hour and a half long and it's catalogued in the North Idaho College Library. It's still there. When the debate was over Richard Butler had been so defeated he went to the Spokesman Review and said I've been sandbagged; I want a second debate and it was as fair as you could do in any debate and I said, "He just admitted his defeat."
You have to find a way to support the First Amendment and the 14th. The First Amendment is free speech, free press, right to assemble and even hate speech but the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause says we also must protect people from harassment, discrimination. These are protections of the laws and we have found a way to not allow either of those two to be harmed and I think it was one of our great moments when we did that.
Franklin: So you never sat down with Richard Butler just mano-a-mano.
Stewart: What do we debate or discuss? That he can be bigoted and direct his harassment at African- Americans but not Native Americans? There's nothing to debate unless he is willing to denounce his whole doctrine and promote human rights; then we'll talk.
I learned a long time ago there is no use to spend time in that kind of environment or a futile effort. There are too many people to work with that can be convinced about the rights of equality, not spending your time in that. Also I think that gives a hate group some legitimacy.
One of the ministerial association members came to me once and asked for advice. Richard Butler had asked to meet with him on a monthly basis to discuss religious ideas and he said what do you think? I said it would be a terrible mistake because if you as wonderful religious leaders committed to all these great principles, if you meet with him it gives him legitimacy….. And they refused to meet with him.
By the way, he would not allow certain reporters at the compound - minority reporters. You had to be white to be there as a reporter. But no, the task force then and now has no intention of talking to or negotiating with hate. We know what their beliefs are. There is nothing else to learn.
Franklin: But you did speak out. And some people didn't agree with that.
Stewart: Some of our dear friends said it first in particular in the midst of it-"if you people will just be low key and quiet they'll just kind of disappear." Well that doesn't happen. It didn't happen in Germany; it doesn't happen anywhere.
But I have to say that some of those individuals who thought that at the beginning became some of our greatest supporters and not only speaking out in support of what we're doing but even financially.
Two or three of them have said to me in more recent years "Tony we were wrong. You did the right thing as an organization. You had to confront the hate."
Franklin: Just because they're small in numbers doesn't lessen their potential impact.
Stewart: You are so correct. But their numbers were greater than what was at first anticipated. In the mid-1980's when he was at his height he would have at the so-called Church - and I always emphasize so-called religion - he would have on Sunday around a hundred people. That is very serious.
And Sunday after Sunday he'd preach to them. Then when he had his congresses in the mid-1980's he would have three hundred people coming in from Canada and the United States. It was a very great possibility that this was going to grow and grow.
They were looking for a place to go where either people would be sympathetic or apathetic.
Franklin: So it really wasn't a small group.
Stewart: It was not that small. I would think that if you found a hundred communists meeting every day during the time when that was such a great threat or a hundred Nazis, whatever group it was, you cannot ignore that.
And another reason why you cannot ignore it because they are already in the process of creating victims and you can't ignore the fact that crimes are being committed. We know of over eight murders committed by people who left the compound after hearing the hate. And we know of bank robberies and counterfeiting money and the Order 1 declaring war on the United States.
Franklin: How scared were you personally?
Stewart: It was something of great concern to all of us. After Father Bill Wassmuth's home was bombed we really realized the extent of the seriousness.
We had a number of people threatened. And after the bombings I always recall what Father Bill said at our big Unity rally. He said I am very afraid. I'm very frightened but I refuse to live a life of being intimidated. I want to live a long life but whether I do or not I cannot remain silent and we all followed that particular pledge.
We did take a lot of precautions during those difficult times - things that we were given, as advice from experts and law enforcement. We have to praise law enforcement. They were very diligent in watching after us that because when the second bombs went off in Coeur d'Alene about 10 days after Bill's home was bombed, at four different sites in Coeur d'Alene, I was in the classroom teaching at North Idaho College and I had a nine o'clock class.
When I left the room at 10 to go to my office there were two police officers waiting for me. They took me to my office and said "All of you are in danger and we're going to spend the day with you. We're trying to find who did this." And one of them who had been a former student of mine went to my home and spent the night. I never forgot that. So we had a lot of support.
The community was so angry when the Catholic priest's home was bombed and it rallied people in a way that had not happened before. I think from that day on we didn't have to spend much time trying to defend why we were so vocal.
Franklin: So were you scared?
Stewart: On a number of occasions, but here's one thing I never did. We all didn't agree. I didn't have as many threats as some people. I had two phone calls that were very serious and I took it to the police - the recording - but I never went public. …some others would call the media. My belief was that if I didn't make it public the perpetrators wouldn't know how I was thinking or doing with it.
Franklin: Idaho has some strong laws on the books as a result of having to deal with this, right?
Stewart: In 1981 when we organized on these threats I think our wisdom was as a collective group we decided that we were going to have one goal at the beginning and that is to get legislation to deal with these kinds of crimes.
We felt there should be laws describing clearly hate crimes. And so starting in 1981 we started immediately working with the Sheriff's Association in the state and prosecutors trying to get legislation passed.
And our first success came in 1983 with the anti-malicious harassment law, a criminal law and a felony. And later we were able to add a new section, civil remedies, to be able to sue. We were able to get passed - a year before the federal law later in the 1980's a uniform or vice crime reporting law where the police would have to report if it was a hate crime.
And we got something that was really, really interesting to me because it came years before that awful crime of 9/11. We got a Domestic Terrorist Control Act in Idaho - or Anti-Paramilitary Training. It is very carefully written. It has nothing to do with denying people the right of guns for hunting or sports, but if people come into our state and they train militarily to try to take over our government it is a very serious felony.
So from 1983 all the way through the end of the mid-1990's one of our success stories and we spread out to other things is the tremendous number of laws that the legislature passed and our Governors did sign.
And one of our great allies who was in a very critical position at the time was Marilyn Shuler. I worked closely with her. She was an incredible director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. We worked on strategy for legislation.
One of the great mistakes made is that Richard Butler went into testify with his uniform on - against the law - which was a great break for us because how could the legislature side with Richard Butler?
Franklin: Talk about Bill Wassmuth:
Stewart: We had a very, very common set of principles. We always encouraged one another and when one of us had a difficult time the other one was there. We had a lot of time together, traveled a lot together and even had the opportunity to use humor too as part of our, really I guess - was good for us mentally and emotionally.
He was a remarkable friend and a brilliant speaker and very committed with great courage. Someone can't leave your life like that without you missing them but I go back and think about being grateful for the time we had together.
Franklin: Talk about Lemons to Lemonade.
Stewart: One of our great success stories. Some years ago Norm Gissel, Marshal Mend and I did a seven day tour of Pennsylvania and starting out at the University of Pittsburgh. We were asked to come and we had an entourage there to speak across the state. While we were there we discovered in one small community when the Klan came to town that they used what they called lemons to lemonade. They had very little time to put it together and they raised a couple of thousand dollars.
When we heard in January of 1998 that Richard Butler had applied for a permit and was going to march our position was to the city of Coeur d'Alene you can't stop the march. It's protected by the First Amendment if there is no violence but there is a way of dealing with it without trying to stop the march.
So we had such good lead time I was appointed by the task force to be the coordinator for it.
We held a press conference in January or February announcing lemons to lemonade and we asked individuals and organizations and groups to pledge money to either our organization or through us to other organizations and for every minute they marched you'd pledge money and we promised that all the money would go to work on civil rights and human rights.
And it caught on across the nation. I did interviews from all parts of the United States television, radio and newspapers and I entered this concept of a political campaign. It really was, and at the press conference I said Richard Butler and their nation have three choices and it was like a check mate for the march.
I said, "He can cancel the march and we shall make no money for human rights. That's one choice. Number two: he is quite elderly but as he walks down the street if he will run as fast as he can and get it over with quickly we'll make a little money for human rights or number three: he can walk very slowly and the longer he walks the more money we make for human rights and we suggest he walk very slowly."
We took in $34,000 on those pledges. Even a professor at Harvard Law School sent us money. Students at Arizona State University, the utility company gave us $25.00 per minute.
It only lasted twenty-seven minutes but he was so upset about this he said to a reporter who called me, this is illegal what they are doing. There is a law in Idaho for every dollar they raise we get fifty cents. And she said to me - a television reporter - I called the Attorney General before talking to you and he laughed and said they can make all the money they want.
And so we had checkmated him. Our point is, back to Dr. King, we had found a very good strategy we had learned from someone else but instead of standing on the sidelines yelling at him we had all these months to do this and we wound up with $24,000 ourselves. The rest of the money went to like the NAACP or the Northwest Coalition and others that we sent to them.
Three times he had to hear throughout all the media that all this money was going to teach children about diversity and we gave him credit for it. That's a victory rather than spending thirty minutes on the street yelling at him. It was one of our greatest projects we've ever done.
…everybody could participate in a very safe way. Everybody could participate. You know ,you just give a pledge. And we didn't release the names of who gave what.
And my favorite contribution was from a woman in Spokane who had no money, or hardly. She sent me a letter with four dimes in the letter and then on the outside when she sealed it she had a little yellow sticker, she said this is my cat and it's a lemon-aid cat. And so it really caught on you know? It was a terrible defeat for him.
Franklin: Do you think he walked faster or slower?
Stewart: Oh I think that he didn't know what to do. It was only like seven blocks or so. He walked pretty slowly and we had one of our people down at the park with this sign, like a thermometer. It was going up and up and how many thousands. And what else we did that was such a great strategy.
About every three or four weeks we would notify the media how much money had been pledged and so all through the spring and summer it kept adding up. We got a year's attention out of his twenty-seven minute march. I'm just saying to you that you need to be more intelligent than the hate groups in strategy.
We made a week out of it in addition to the months of lemons to lemonade. We decided to meet at Post Falls and we've always used orange ribbons as our color because they show up at night and we had many cars and we decorated every car with ribbon.
And then we had the media following us and we had this huge long caravan, car caravan to Gonzaga University with all these ribbons, all our lights on. People passed us on the interstate waving and blowing their horn and the media followed us all the way.
When we arrived there - and we had planned it for months - we had a thousand people and we had these great speakers and we had great music and what we were doing was combining this effort between Washington and Idaho and announced that ahead of time.
We had a lot of press conferences. We had a press conference at the state line where Idahoans on the one side and the Washingtonians on the other and we met on the bridge and shook hands that we were announcing hands across the border for human rights and announced the big rally we would have.
Then later on Sunday we had an interfaith service at St. Pius Catholic Church of the Jewish and Christian and other communities interfaith service. We had a cowboy/cowgirl picnic out at Rathdrum. In that week we distributed six thousand ribbons. People had them on their cars and on their homes and the trees. So instead of taking just twenty-seven minutes we chose to do a whole campaign.
Franklin: But Butler didn't go away.
Stewart: It's an excellent question….most members of hate groups they come into your community and if they find out they're not being received well they'll leave. Richard Butler was unique. He would not do so.
That was his personality. He was determined. He enjoyed I think the confrontation or the idea that you couldn't discourage him to leave.
… although we had many successes and we had many laws passed and many people went to prison, it took that lawsuit to really bring an end to his ability to recruit, now when he lost all of his property and he had no resources, nowhere for them to stay.
Of all the victories we've ever had and there have been many in partnership with others it was the trial and his loss of his property.
Franklin: Could you ever have imagined that it would end that way?
Stewart: I had some inclinations it might, and it goes back some years. I always would say, particularly to Norm Gissel they are so crime-oriented…at some point they were going to make a mistake and when Father Bill's home was bombed….there was some connection between obviously Order 2 and him, but we couldn't make the distinction clear enough…
…and when I received the telephone call from Victoria Keenan and I called Norm, I said "This is the smoking gun in my opinion" and Norm said "I think so."
Franklin: But it was a long process getting to that point.
Stewart: People got so frustrated and they would say to us sometimes "wouldn't violence be better?" And we say no. It never is the path, and no matter how difficult it got we would always be able to find ways to deal with it nonviolently….
And it was a long process….you've heard as a child (about) the race between the tortoise and the hare. Well the hare should have won that easily, but they got distracted in the briar patch. And as a kid I never forgot that. The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations was the tortoise. This is the long run.
You've got to work 365 days a year. This kind of work is a lifetime commitment. It's not for coming out occasionally in relation to a rally.
Franklin: When the compound was destroyed how did you feel?
Stewart: As one of the buildings was coming down, a reporter rushed up to me and said let's talk and I said I can't talk right now. I have to be very quiet and I have to watch this building come down. When that is over I will talk with you.
But my emotions were on behalf of the victims. My whole thought that day is we're bringing something to an end; there will be fewer victims- at least in our region. This is a great victory for the Constitution, particularly the 14th Amendment, it's a victory for freedom and equality and justice.
We were closing a campus that had preached hate for many, many years.
That was a symbolic day of tearing those particular pieces down and there was tremendous media coverage, so people all over this country and even other countries also got the opportunity to say there's been a victory in Idaho. We really needed that for other reasons too, I think.
Franklin: Why do you think so many people though still think of Idaho as a haven for racists?
Stewart: Here's an analogy. If a plane is coming in to the airport in Spokane and crashes, that's so tragic and it will be covered. But the reporters do not come every day and say "I've come to report another safe landing."
The same analogy applies here - that when he would burn a cross or there would be a crime and when they were interviewed that so saturates the mind of a person. Even though we might be interviewed that day about nonviolence it is the crime and the burning of the cross that sticks so deeply, rather than our message, although reporters always shared that with us.
It's like having a class and I talk for so long. If I have 40 students and 39 of them are being wonderful in the classroom but one is causing you lots of trouble, if you're not careful you will direct your exhaustion to that one student, forgetting the 39 others. So it's the sensationalism of it that so penetrated the psyche of this country that it's been very difficult to overcome, although the trial did help in many ways because it was sensational too.
Franklin: I've heard you call it a stain before. Do you think that is appropriate?
Stewart: It was a very deep stain upon our whole state which was not justified but it's a reality we had to face.
And that's another role we play in our own small way. When I speak all over the United States I tell this story. People are fascinated with it and there is tremendous media coverage. I spent four days in Gainesville, Florida speaking on this issue; we spent seven days in Pennsylvania. Obviously from what happened in John Day we got tremendous coverage. I even did interviews with media out of Asia.
So I guess I have to say Marcia, both our organization and everyone else needs to be good ambassadors for our state and our region and do what we can do. We only can do so much, but little by little the tortoise can send the message.
Franklin: We're seeing some more incidents though. Does that worry you?
Stewart: It always does. The good news is there is no compound, they have no resources. There is a very bad split between them and each group has got three to four members.
The great news is they are split among themselves. They don't have a compound, they don't have all those buildings, they don't have people coming in to stay there and they don't have a person. Even though I thought that Richard Butler was a very poor speaker and rambled he was good at his strategy of having a place and drawing attention. That is all gone.
Also our communities, plural, in this whole region have learned a lot over the thirty years and they respond quickly.
Franklin: When you look out across the landscape, what are the current human rights issues?
Stewart: ….number one is in education. You have to bring into the educational system the great lessons and great curriculum dealing with human rights with children. And we've been doing that for 25 with our MLK program. We saw its success. We got over 30,000. And to this day those who are 32 or 33 will tell you about when they went into the program years ago.
We created another organization to really help with that. The Human Rights Education Institute.
….the next big phase will be in large corporations, incorporating diversity in the work place, not only in the recruiting process but how you set up the workplace.
For example, they are in many of these corporations making it clear in their policy they will not discriminate based on all these protected classes - race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation. And business has great power and I think as they create that kind of workplace it will find its way into other parts of society. So I look at both the formal educational system and corporations as our greatest allies in the future.
Franklin: Some people are very averse to having their children hear about human rights issues.
Stewart: The good news is there are very few of them. At least in our schools here, and I've talked to the faculty and the administrators. We have a few isolated examples where they're not allowed to go to it but it's very small.
Social fabric and social pressure is very powerful, and when the great majority is doing this even some of those children later when they get a little older will say "my father or mother was wrong."
And a good example of that -a lady came into my office about 18 old about four years ago and she said "I need to tell you Tony, my mother is racist but we're having a meeting every month and I'm helping her. She cries every time but I'm going to get her out of this."
Each generation tends to become more supportive and tolerant and here is a daughter helping her mother and so I have a lot of optimism with that.
Franklin: Does it seem like ten years since the verdict?
Stewart: No. First of all the older I get, the more I have trouble about how long something was. Time passes faster. I'm always saying something was three years ago and it was eight years ago. It seems like the trial was probably two years ago. I'm just amazed how much time has passed and the more one stays busy the more looks at it from that viewpoint. My, where did time go? But that's why we decided to pause and have anniversary recognition of the 10th year.
And we're doing it for two reasons. A lot of people have moved to our region in the last 10 years and they don't know anything about this. By doing this it's an educational tool to say "Look what this jury did, look what our community did."
And secondly it sends a message to anyone who might be considering moving here and engage in hate, this is what a jury does. And then we honor the jury by doing this.
Franklin: How do you feel about people still moving here because it's white? They choose to move here for that reason.
Stewart: An individual or a family in this free country can move wherever they wish but it certainly is important for us to continue our work. It says to us that we must continue. There are always challenges. And you don't want to start slipping backwards.
The fact that so many people have witnessed hate up so close, it has converted them to supporting human rights.
Polls are indicating that people are much more tolerant about some groups of people that they weren't even five or ten years ago. There's a new poll out that says that I saw yesterday that 50% of Americans now are saying that same-sex marriages are okay. And that's a very controversial topic.
…. look at the progress about disability, and not only the passage of laws but how people are much more receptive to trying to create facilities that are very helpful to people with the challenge of a disability.
But it's an ongoing process and not in our lifetime will we ever see a society where there will be no prejudice. But even when you take two steps forward if you take a half step back and you take two more steps forward you're still moving forward.
Franklin: And when you go onto the compound as you did today are the emotions pretty well erased by now?
Stewart: The first time I went and I waited some days before I went and then I went up with Norm Gissel and it was a very difficult experience and seeing all the hate that was still there. I just felt that around me it was just such a place where so much evil had been. This may sound minor but I wanted to go home and take a shower. That's how I felt.
What was therapy for me is…I spent about two months up there with a construction company getting rid of everything. It was very good therapy to watch it all go away, and we said to the contractor move anything that nature didn't put here.
And one thing helped me too. When we finally got rid of everything I was approached by ministers and religious leaders from Spokane and here and they wanted to go up there privately one Sunday with no advertising and they wanted to use a ceremony to purify the land. So I have no qualms now.
Franklin: So when you are there it's just another piece of land now?
Stewart: It's not just another piece of land to me. I think symbolically it is changed from very dark and evil to I think now a special place. And I think these religious leaders helped make it that by dedicating it to healing and peace.
Animals returned that hadn't been there. I find it now, and only speaking for myself, I find it a special place now. How you turn hate and evil into something very good.
Franklin: And why not make it a conference center for people to come study human rights?
Stewart: That could be a possibility. We decided to give it to North Idaho College Foundation. I asked (Greg Carr) to put in the deed for twenty years they can't touch it.
I wanted those wonderful neighbors to have peace. They've been through so much. I was thinking of them. In a way they were victims by having to live next to that all the time and the congress and the flags flying. And then secondly wanted the land to heal and I think it has healed and will continue to heal.
Franklin: Don't you worry though that it could be sold and a housing development put on it?
Stewart: It could be, but it won't be for a long time. That is why Greg was so wonderful. I said "Can I put in the deed this restriction?" And he said you get it only under this condition. And as long as he and I are around we'll make sure.
Franklin: Why did you want it to go to the NIC Foundation instead of being turned into a park or conference center?
Stewart: One problem with it up there is there's no water. It would be very expensive to drill some wells. It's very, very dry, but secondly the reason I suggested the North Idaho College Foundation is we have a lot of partners and one of our great partners through all of these years has been North Idaho College.
I couldn't think of any entity at the time we needed to thank more than we could thank them. They've always been with us.
Franklin: Is there anything that I have neglected to ask you about?
Stewart: I would encourage all wonderful human beings and particularly the youth to commit yourself to being supporters of freedom, equality and justice and always come forward and be an ally for someone who needs you, someone who has been a victim.
When history is recorded it is never kind to either those who engaged in hate and prejudice and bigotry, and it's not very kind for those who sit on the sidelines. History, if you read it carefully is honoring those who did the right thing.
There's a lot of work to do yet. And one cannot rest on the laurels of what has happened and success.
Some people said as soon as we won that victory and the compound was gone the task force would cease operation. Well, that was in 2000, and I would say we're as active as we've ever been ten years later.
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 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.
"I don't know how you're going to do this," Tony Stewart said to me as I was writing this documentary. "Human rights issues never end!"
Stewart, one of the founding members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, knows that all too well. Although the Task Force had a leading role in getting rid of the Aryan Nations in north Idaho in 2000, it continues to be active, as hate in our society never truly goes away.
"We are still as busy in many ways as we were 10, 15 years ago," says Norm Gissel, another founding member of the Task Force.
In addition to the "moving target" conundrum that Stewart referenced, ie: that hate crimes and diversity issues are constantly in the news, there's the overall question: what are "human rights?" As Marshall Mend says, "human rights is for human beings." That's a lot of people.
So the greatest challenge for me in this program was indeed that: trying to cover a subject as vast as human rights in only an hour, and to narrow the subject down. After talking to several human rights leaders, the two issues that came up over and over again were gay rights and immigrant rights. Both are also national topics, which meant I had to find a local angle for each. I couldn't cover issues such as disability rights, which actually make up the bulk of the complaints to the Commission on Human Rights.
In addition, I also wanted to spend at least half of the program looking at the history of the Aryan Nations and the Task Force. One could easily spend an hour just on that.
As a result, many excellent quotes from the interviewees were left "on the cutting room floor" (although we use videotape these days, so "on the shelf" may be more accurate.) And several important interviews never made it into the show, including one with Bob Hughes, a former U.S. Department of Justice official who initially sounded the alarm over the Aryan Nations and showed locals how to build coalitions between law enforcement, religious leaders, educators and the public in order to fight the group peacefully. I also interviewed several refugees but couldn't put their stories in because of time. That's a great regret of mine.
Another challenge: the lack of source material. The Task Force didn't take pictures of themselves in the early days; they were too busy accomplishing things. And most television channels had thrown away or erased their tapes from the '80s or '90s. What was left wasn't catalogued correctly or had degraded because it was recorded on ¾" tape. It is a sad fact that much of America's videotaped history from 1979 to 1992, when ¾" tape was used, is lost.
I am indebted to Chuck "Videosmith" Smith, a citizen and former member of the Bonner County Task Force on Human Rights, who on his own videotaped several of the events at which the Kootenai County Task Force members spoke. He and his wife were unfailingly gracious as I sat in his office for a whole day and went through his stack of tapes. They even fed lunch to me and Director Jay Krajic.
Were it not for people like Smith, who videotaped events, or people like Gayle Speizer and Tony Stewart who kept scrapbooks of newspaper headlines, or Jim Zimmer at KSPS in Spokane, who kept raw footage from that time, or Steve Sibulsky of St. Pius Church who had photos of Father Wassmuth, this program couldn't have been made. As it was, I couldn't find many photos or headlines of certain people or issues, so there were some events I wanted to write about but couldn't.
That's because in television, if you don't have a visual, you can't say it. There were many times making this documentary that I wished I were a print or radio journalist!
Speaking of Jay, the documentary was immensely aided by not only his skills as a director and videographer, but his interest in the topic. He would hear of some events and mention them to me, or go up on his own to interview someone. He also helped me spend the hours needed to scan headlines and photos.
When it comes to the present-day stories, a documentary like this could not be made without people speaking up about uncomfortable subjects. Laura Doty was willing to talk about being fired because she was gay; an undocumented immigrant told me what it was like to live in fear every day; Raylen Smith, an African-American man, relived the night that he was assaulted by a gang. It is one thing to tell these stories to friends; it is another to tell them on camera. I am indebted to them as well.
photo Raylen Smith of Boise talked about the brutal hate crime he experienced in Nampa, ID.
The genesis of this program was the opportunity I had to film human rights leaders Bill Wassmuth, Marilyn Shuler and Idaho Purce going on to Aryan Nation compound for the first time since the court case that bankrupted the group in September, 2000.
In April, 2001, they were in town to honor the people involved in the court case, including lawyer Morris Dees, plaintiffs Victoria and Jason Keenan, and philanthropist Greg Carr. I had heard that the group was going to visit the compound, so I asked if director and videographer Jeff Tucker and I could tag along to record the event.
It was extremely moving to see the three walk onto the grounds: Bill Wassmuth, a human rights leader who had recently been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal illness; Idaho Purce, an African-American who would have been shot if she had attempted to go on the compound when the Aryans were there; and Marilyn Shuler, the former director of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights.
All had given so much of their time and passion to ridding the state of the group, but had never visited the "campus of hate," as Stewart calls it.
Hate literature was still strewn or stacked up everywhere; I picked up a few pieces of it. What struck me perhaps the most was the playground outside; it showed that children had lived there and been exposed to hate every day. I would like to meet some of those children, now grown, and learn whether they espouse their parents' views.
Despite his weakening legs, Bill wanted to climb the tower where two of Butler's guards had been right before they shot at the Keenans. I can still remember being behind him on the ladder, in case he started to fall. I knew I would not have been strong enough to hold him, so we would have fallen together. He made it up, though, and as Idaho Purce says, "that was his victory."
It was also moving to watch Wassmuth stand at the pulpit where Butler had threatened his life many times, and ring the church bell. Both brought the story full circle for me as a producer, and the actions in a sense were also a cleansing of the hateful atmosphere that had reigned there for nearly 30 years.
When I came back to Boise with the video, I felt strongly that it could be part of a longer documentary about how a small group of people had pushed a hate group out of the state, slowly, persistently, and non-violently. So the station started fundraising. That was almost exactly a decade ago.
In 2002, I would visit Wassmuth at his beautiful Victorian-style home in Ellensburg, WA. By then, he was in a wheelchair and his voice was becoming faint. His spirits were high, though, and he joked about trying out different foods and drinks through his feeding tube. A constant stream of friends, plus the support of his wife, kept him upbeat.
"Somebody said that one could judge the success of one's life by the amount that one was loved in their latter years," he said. "If that is true I feel like I've had a very successful life."
He was serious when it came to talking about the threats he still saw, despite the destruction of the compound. September 11 had just occurred, and he was concerned about a backlash against Muslims. He was concerned about immigrant rights. And, as always, his message about the importance of everyone examining their own prejudices rang through loud and clear.
"For the real change to happen that needs to take place community by community and person by person," he said. "It's the hearts of people that need to move forward.
It was so tough to say goodbye to him that day, knowing that it would be the last time I would see him. The videographer that day, Tom Hadzor, had known Wassmuth when he was one of his teachers, and he and I both spent quiet moments on the way back to Boise reflecting on our visit. I felt only a bit better knowing that Wassmuth had said he was ready to go.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he told me. "I'm not afraid of what is on the other side, so that helps a great deal. "
I will never forget Bill Wassmuth, and have a picture of him on my office door at home and at work. The bravery of his work, and the dignity with which he died continue to inspire me and many others.
This documentary was the toughest project of my career, because of the subject matter and because of the research issues mentioned above.
But it also contained some great pleasures, moments that I will never forget. In addition to the compound visit, we also went to John Day, OR, where Tony Stewart and Norm Gissel had been asked by a local newspaper publisher to address the community. A supposed neo-Nazi, Paul Mullet, had come to town saying he wanted to buy land there.
The community hall was packed with people from all walks of life. Resident Meliana Lysne, one of the few non-whites in the city, stood up to thank everyone to come out. Her tearful praise created a spontaneous standing ovation. Outside on the street, people young and old held signs for human rights and people resoundingly honked their car horns as they went by. One man, a garbage collector, told me it was the first time he had ever done anything like this.
I was moved as well looking at the AIDS quilt in Idaho Falls, which includes panels honoring Idahoans who have died of the disease. "Breaking Boundaries" brings parts of the quilt to Idaho Falls every year as part of a benefit for people with HIV/AIDS.
And I was extremely impressed with T.J. Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead who now lectures all over the world against hate. His energy was contagious, and I hope to bring him to Idaho to speak.
One of the most inspiring parts of this project was meeting the many young people who are involved in human rights issues, whether they be gay rights, bullying, poverty issues, or race relations. They don't see divisions between people, and are filled with optimism and energy. They were a joy to be around. Many of the interviewees, like former governor Phil Batt, said the same thing.
"It comes natural with them to not have these negative thoughts," said Batt, "and I just hope they will keep that up. We have a bad rap in some of the national press and I hope those kids are able to wipe that clear off the face of the map."
September 25, 2015: Dialogue: 25 Years of the ADA
Marcia Franklin talks with Kelly Buckland, the executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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September 18, 2015: Dialogue: Defending Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Marcia Franklin continues her conversation with Boise attorney David Nevin, the lead defense counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to planning the 9/11 attacks.
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March 20, 2015: Dialogue: Honoring Anne Frank
Marcia Franklin takes a look back at a 1996 speech of Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family for two years. Gies also saved Anne's diary after the family was deported in August 1944. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen in March, 1945, just two months before it was liberated.
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November 28, 2014: Dialogue: The Power of Education: Tererai Trent, Ph.D.
In this inspiring conversation, Marcia Franklin talks with Tererai Trent, Ph.D., who grew up in rural Zimbabwe and is featured in the book, Half the Sky. As a young girl, she had always wanted an education, but wasn't allowed. Undeterred, Trent taught herself to read, and then wrote down her goals, saved her money and eventually became educated in the U.S., earning two Masters degrees and a Ph.D.
Watch The Power of Education: Tererai Trent, Ph.D. On Demand
November 14, 2014: Dialogue: Conversations from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference: Representative John Lewis
Marcia Franklin talks with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the last of the "Big Six" leaders of the African-American civil rights movement. Lewis, who spoke at the 2014 Sun Valley Writers' Conference, talks about the major civil rights events in which he participated, his passion for the movement, current civil rights challenges, and a new trilogy of comic books, "March," that he's writing about his life.
Watch Representative John Lewis. On Demand
October 17, 2014: Dialogue: Author Isabel Wilkerson
Marcia Franklin interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her book, The Warmth of Other Suns. The work, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south to other parts of the country, took Wilkerson 15 years to research and write. They discuss the reasons for the migration, its influence on the country, and how the book's success has affected Wilkerson.
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October 10, 2014: Dialogue: Pete Earley, Author of Crazy
Marcia Franklin speaks with former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley about his book, Crazy. The memoir chronicles what he learned about America's mental health system while trying to get help for his mentally ill son, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. The two discuss why he wanted to write the book, as well as what he sees as current gaps in mental health policy in the U.S.
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December 13, 2013: Dialogue: "I am Adam Lanza's Mother"
Marcia Franklin talks with Liza Long, the mother of a son with a mental illness, about a controversial blog post she wrote about her fear of her son, and what she thinks is needed to improve the mental health system.
Watch "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" On Demand
October 25, 2013: Dialogue: Morris Dees
Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, reflects back on the 2000 legal case against the Aryan Nations in Idaho, which he won, and discusses current human rights issues.
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September 27, 2013: Dialogue: Refugee Advocate Rose Mapendo
Marcia Franklin talks with former Congolese refugee Rose Mapendo, the subject of the PBS documentary, "Pushing the Elephant," about her harrowing experience in a death camp, the difficulties of being a refugee, and her work with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Watch Refugee Advocate Rose Mapendo On Demand
September 13, 2013: Dialogue: Israeli-Palestinian Partnership
Marcia Franklin talks with an Israeli and a Palestinian brought together by an Idahoan to work on projects that promote peace between the two groups.
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September 6, 2013: Dialogue: Remembering the Holocaust
Marcia Franklin talks with Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan about her experiences in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The two also discuss her book, "Four Perfect Pebbles," her passion for teaching about human rights, and her trip back to Germany, which she fled after being liberated. Lazan is profiled in a documentary called "Marion's Triumph," which has been shown on PBS stations.
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July 12, 2013: Dialogue: Filmmaker Dawn Porter
Marcia Franklin talks with filmmaker Dawn Porter about her documentary, "Gideon's Army," which looks at the underfunded and overworked system of public defenders in the South.
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July 5, 2013: Dialogue: Grover Norquist on Immigration
Marcia Franklin talks with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist about why he believes immigration reform is both morally correct and pencils out financially.
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May 24, 2012: Dialogue: Fair Trade
Marcia Franklin talks with Doug Dirks of Ten Thousand Villages about the principles of fair trade.
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January 19, 2012: Dialogue: Refugees
According to the Idaho Office for Refugees, 5,000 refugees arrived in Idaho in just five years. Marcia Franklin talks with four of the newcomers about why they had to flee their respective home countries, and what it's been like to live in Idaho. Guests include: Fidel Nshombo, from Congo; Rusul Mousa-Bryant, from Iraq; Jumuna Gautam, from Bhutan; and Hosy Nasimi, from Afghanistan.
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May 26, 2011: Dialogue: Human Rights In Idaho
In this special hour-long Dialogue, a follow-up to the IdahoPTV documentary 'Color of Conscience,' Marcia Franklin and her guests explore the ways Idaho has improved its human rights reputation since the destruction of the Aryan Nations compound.
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Jan 20, 2011: Dialogue: Don't Ask, Don't Tell
On Dec. 15 of 2010 the U.S. House voted to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gays in the military, and three days later the Senate also passed the legislation. President Obama signed the bill the following week. Marcia Franklin talks with Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach of Mountain Home Air Force Base, whose challenge of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy regarding gays in the military was one of the centerpieces of the debate on the issue.
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May 13, 2010: Dialogue: Arizona's Immigration Law
A new immigration law in Arizona would compel local law enforcement officials to confront individuals whom they suspect of being illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship or immigration status. In this episode of Dialogue, Idaho Senator Mike Jorgenson, who would like to see a similar law in Idaho, debates the law with Leo Morales, Immigration Policy Director for the Idaho Community Action Network.
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