The history of white supremacy and community resistance in Whatcom County
The first installment in this series, about the history of the KKK in Whatcom County, is available here.
By Emily Stout
While the Ku Klux Klan in Bellingham faded out of the public eye by 1930, former members who aligned themselves with white supremacist beliefs were still here. Since then, white supremacist groups in the region have evolved.
The Silver Shirts
The Silver Legion of America, usually called the Silver Shirts, was a fascist, antisemitic organization that gained a following in Washington after the KKK. While there is not as much documented evidence of their activity in Bellingham, historians believe that many former Klan members in Skagit and Whatcom Counties joined the Silver Shirts.
David Neiwert, a journalist who specializes in domestic terrorist groups in the Pacific Northwest, said Klan officials shared their list of members with the Silver Shirts in order to recruit people in the area.
The Silver Shirts was started in 1933 by William Dudley Pelley from Massachusetts. He began the organization in North Carolina, but Washington had one of the largest followings. The group was documented as being active in Seattle and Spokane.
The Silver Shirts were inspired by the Brown Shirts in Nazi Germany, a military group associated with the Nazi Party. Pelley aimed to create a new all-white Protestant government, according to archives from the American Jewish Committee.
In “Liberator,” the official magazine of the Silver Shirts, Pelley wrote that Jews posed a threat to America, using increasingly violent rhetoric as the organization went on.
In 1933, the American Jewish Committee wrote a bulletin about the rise of the Silver Shirts.
“There is every reason to believe that Pelley’s bitter campaign against the Jews has been encouraged by Hitler’s ascent to power and is to some extent financed by Nazi sympathizers,” the bulletin said.
According to the North Carolina History Project, Pelley’s ideology went further than just religion, as his ideal Christian commonwealth would also exclude non-whites.
In 1936, Pelley ran for president as a Christian Party candidate, Neiwert said. Washington was the only state where he made it on the ballot, and he got little more than 1,500 votes.
In 1939, Life magazine did a feature on fascism in the United States and focused primarily on a group of Silver Shirts in Chehalis, Washington, about 90 miles south of Seattle.
Accompanied by black and white photos of group meetings, the Life article said that Silver Shirt members felt disenfranchised by the social and political climate at the time.
“Depression-worried about their jobs and small businesses, groping for something to fight back at in this bewildering, swift-changing world, they were easy meat for William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirt organizers and propaganda,” the article said.
By the 1940s, Pelley had become well-known nationally and President Roosevelt took notice of his antisemetic and anti-government rhetoric, according to the North Carolina History Project. The federal government began investigating the Silver Shirts and witnesses said that Pelley had plans to overthrow the government.
In 1942, Pelley was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sedition, or inciting people to rebel against the government. Without him, the organization died out.
Red Scare in Washington
The Western Front found little evidence of white supremacist groups in the Pacific Northwest after the Silver Shirts, lasting until at least the 1970s, even though the country was experiencing racial divides due to the Civil Rights Movement.
Neiwert said the hate groups were mostly dormant or inactive in the area during this time, but many sympathizers are believed to have been involved with anti-communist movements.
One example of the Red Scare in Washington was in Seattle, where suspected communists were put on trial in the 1950s by the U.S. Congress House of Un-American Activities Committee, according to archived transcripts.
In Seattle, civil rights activism began before the national movement in the 1960s and ‘70s and included the organization of several minority groups, mostly uniting against labor issues in the city, according to the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
By the late 1980s, white-supremacist activity in the area was made more public, mostly due to the increased membership of groups like Aryan Nations.
Aryan Nations is a neo-Nazi hate group that was founded in 1977. Started in Hayden, Idaho with a sprawling compound dedicated to its gatherings, the Southern Poverty Law Center said the group has a wide spectrum of racist and antisemitic ideas.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, local hate crimes were frequently reported.
In 1991, an African American man named Raymond Hampton was assaulted in Everett along with his son as they left a grocery store. Someone that claimed to be part of a white supremacist group yelled racial slurs and threatened them as they left a grocery store, according to an article by the Everett Herald.
“When he spoke with a reporter at his south Everett-area home on Wednesday, Hampton and his family were still reeling with a mix of anger, fear, and frustration,” the article said.
In 1995, students of color at Western were attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads living in a house in the York district, the Associated Press reported.
The city and Western came together outraged after the incident, and the Ethnic Student Center and Whatcom Human Rights Task force organized a march against racism and hate, according to a NWCitizen article from the time. This was the start of the “Not in Our Town” and “Joining Hands Against Hate” campaigns. When police searched the house to find evidence, they found hate literature and correspondence with an Aryan Nations leader, according to the article. Two of the skinheads were found guilty of malicious harassment, according to the article.
In 1997, the Seattle-area home of Cheryl Glass, the first black woman professional race car driver in the United States, was broken into and a swastika was spray-painted on her wall, the Seattle Times reported. Glass also reported several other attacks on her home, where she was the only African American person living in the neighborhood, according to an article by the Seattle Times.
In 2000, a Lummi student at Ferndale High School was handed a letter while at school saying that Lummi members are “savages,” according to an article by the Bellingham Herald. The letter was signed with a swastika.
These are just a few examples of hate crimes and discrimination that have been archived at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies and are not the only incidents.
Although use of the swastika doesn’t mean the crimes were carried out by a neo-Nazi group, it is used to spread fear and sends a clear message of hatred and white supremacy. The swastika became the most recognizable symbol for Nazi propaganda after it was used during the reign of Adolf Hitler, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
When antisemitic messages were found around Western’s campus last year, Perry Blankenship, then-president of Hillel of WWU, a Jewish club on campus, said that swastikas make people feel threatened.
“It’s definitely a legitimate threat, and once anybody says or uses it with any sincerity, it’s scary,” Blankinship told the Front.
Hate crimes and discrimination against minorities in the area continue now and are felt by minority communities in Bellingham.
In October, anti-Muslim flyers were posted on Western’s campus and earlier this week, anitsemitic writing was found in books in the Jewish Studies section of the library and a Western professor found a swastika drawn outside her door.
In Bellingham, there is one official Southern Poverty Law Center-defined active hate group. The Fortress of Faith ministry broadcasts their ideals through anti-Muslim radio broadcasting with titles like “Islam Violates the First Amendment” and “Dealing With Strangers in Our Land,” according to its website.
However, that does not mean that is the only white supremacy group active in the area. ProPublica recently found that Washington state is also home to one of the largest Atomwaffen chapters, a white-nationalist group that is connected to multiple homicides across the country. The Washington chapter leader lives in Blaine, ProPublica reported, and while he was living in Bellingham in 2015, police received a report that he had “Nazi memorabilia.”
Community members voiced concerns last year when recruitment flyers for The Proud Boys were found downtown Bellingham. The group is not defined as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but they have been involved in violent white-nationalist protests around the country and the SPLC is monitoring the group.
David Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and one of the founders of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, said that groups like these, although not defined as white-supremacist, spread similar rhetoric.
“No matter what claims they make regarding that they’re not racist, the arguments that they’re putting forward, and the ideas that they’re promoting are in fact grounded in racism,” he told the Front in May 2017.
In 1994, after a cross-burning at a migrant worker camp near Lynden, community members began meeting to discuss how to prevent further malicious acts. The Whatcom Human Rights Task Force is still around today, organizing and participating in community events. According to their website, their mission is to stand up for the rights of the human family.
Johnson, one of the founders of the group, told the Front in May 2017 that organizing against white supremacy and racism is still necessary today.
“This county has a history of neo-Nazis, skinheads, anti-government militias. Those people are still around,” Johnson said. “They’re still gathering and collecting firearms to defend themselves against government overreach and all that sort of thing. They’ve been on the political defensive for many years now.”
In May 2017, Burghart said that it is important for community members to speak out against any form of hate.
“Bigotry spreads in silence. The longer communities are silent, the more likely it is for this stuff to spread and take deep roots, which makes it much more problematic down the road and increases the likelihood of hate crimes or other incidences in the community,” he said.
Editor’s note: The Western Front uses “antisemitic” instead of “anti-Semitic” in accordance to the findings of Western’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Antisemitism. The task force was made up of students, faculty, staff and administrators, and the report can be found here.