Exclusion, housing discrimination and rumored riots: panel explores Oregon’s civil rights movement

“Racing to Change – Oregon’s Civil Rights Years Exhibit” is on display at the Oregon State Capitol until Jan 28. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

In 1967, the public was invited to see Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther party, in a Portland Park. The press labeled it a Black Power rally with rumors of riots, prompting the mayor to call in the National Guard who circled the Albina neighborhood in trucks alongside Portland police.

It’s one of many stories that explores how racist attitudes and policies of exclusion shaped Oregon through a new display at the Oregon State Capitol titled “Racing to Change – Oregon’s Civil Rights Years Exhibit.” The panel is available to view during regular Capitol hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and runs until Jan. 28. 900 Court St. N.E.

Oregon Black Pioneers, a nonprofit that does research on African American’s contributions to Oregon history, curated the panel.

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Gwen Carr is on the board of directors and said there are many people who don’t believe Oregon had a need for civil rights activism.

She said when people talk about the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968, their minds go to places in the deep South like Montgomery, Alabama or Jackson, Mississippi. But she said college campus protests and desegregation were happening here in Oregon. 

“What happened here, it kind of merged with what was going on nationally,” Carr said.

At one time there was a segregated school in Portland, Salem, Maxville and Vernonia, Carr said. There were employment signs in Portland windows that read: white trade only. In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest Klan west of the Mississippi.

Carr said there’s a legacy of racial discrimination in the state that dates to black exclusion laws in the mid-1800s. When the civil rights movement came along, most black Oregonians lived in northeast Portland around Williams Avenue, and were facing housing discrimination in the city.

In the late 1960s the Black Panthers and the Black Berets started to form in Portland and Eugene. Outrage over busing in the 1970s led to the formation of the Black United Front.

Carr was in college in the 1960s and she and her classmates thought that once the old racists died, there would be a bright future.

“But it goes on,” she said. “The war is not over yet. You still have racism.”

She pointed to the Charleston church shooting, where nine black parishioners were murdered in 2015 by a man who espoused racial hatred online.

“When I found out that this man was 19 years old, that horrified me. That told me that it had somehow regenerated itself with the younger generation,” Carr said.

She said members of her generation have become reminders of the past, and how not to repeat it.

“You can’t ignore (racism) or you should not ignore it, you have to keep fighting for it. If you feel that you are being discriminated against, you need to take action,” Carr said. “Protesting, legal action or even just making your neighbor aware ‘this is not going to be tolerated.’”

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Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.