Oregon History Portland History Uncategorized

Portland’s radical past

Author Michael Munk is releasing the second edition of his Portland Red Guide and has graciously written up a few blurbs on some of Portland’s more interesting historical tidbits of our progressive past. Here are some sites and stories from the new edition. 

Radicals in Portland celebrated the Allied victory over fascism in 1945 like most Americans but with a twist: after toning down their union organizing and racial equality activism for the “duration,” they looked forward to rebuilding the progressive coalition of the 1930s for economic democracy in what they expected would be a peaceful world. They celebrated the leading role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and counted on US-USSR friendship continuing in the postwar period.

  • One early sign that the Cold War would break up that wartime alliance came in 1946, when a Soviet naval officer working in his country’s trade mission in the “Red Fort” at 931 SW King was arrested on espionage charges. He was acquitted after a defense by Portland attorney Irvin Goodman.
  • And when the radical-led unions in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) tried to resume their successful organizing drives of the 1930s they met strong opposition. The strongest CIO unions in the Portland area were the longshoremen (Local 8 of the ILWU) and the International Woodworkers of America, which had its headquarters in Portland. But the 1948 national CIO convention, held in what is now the Mark Building of the Portland Art Museum (began what became the expulsion of millions of workers who belonged to “Communist-dominated “unions) as defined by the anti labor Taft Hartley Act.
  • Portland was still a racist city after WW2. In 1945, black war veteran Wardell Henderson was arrested in Vanport for killing a white man and executed in 1948 despite public protests against an unfair trial. Also in 1945, Ervin Jones, another black man residing with his family in Guild’s Lake, was shot and killed by Portland police who were looking for someone else. Irvin Goodman represented both Henderson and Jones’s family. Bennie Sellers, another Vanport resident was shot and killed in 1946 by Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies. They had earlier arrested white leftist and shipyard worker Sam Markson for visiting a friend in the “Black section.” Markson later lived at 2924 NE 28th and was elected president of the Portland Sign Painters Union. After he refused to cooperate with Un-American Activities Committee’s 1954 hearings in Portland, he was forced out of his leadership in the union.
  • The former Waddle’s Restaurant off I-5 by the Interstate Bridge, brandished a “White Trade Only, Please” sign. According to black residents, in 1946, the Virginia Café on SW Park Ave (now moved to 820 SW 10th Ave) and the lunch counter at Newberry’s  downtown on 4th Avenue were “open and welcoming.” Radicals organized protests against racist policies at Blue Lake Park and the Egyptian Theater at 2517 NE MLK Blvd. Paul Robeson’s concerts frequently were SRO at the Civic (now the Keller) Auditorium. He campaigned in Portland for the Progressive party and Vanport flood victims in 1948 but by 1958 he was blacklisted by local cultural institutions and gave his last local concert at Reed College. Portland students organized a “Fair Rose” campaign to endorse  businesses which not discriminate.
  • William McClendon published The People’s Observer, a militant paper for the black community from his home at 2017 N. Williams Ave. A leader of Portland NAACP in 1945, army intelligence considered McClendon a “Communist party organizer”. The Vanport flood in 1948 displaced thousands of residents—many of whom were black. Radicals organized a “Citizens Disaster Committee” to demand better housing but liberals abandoned it when the police Red Squad smeared it as “Communist.” The Portland school board denied the Civil Rights Congress the Benson High School auditorium for a meeting.
  • In 1948, leftist unions and groups opposed to the developing Cold War founded the Progressive Party led by FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace, and campaigned to return to New Deal policies. Its campaign headquarters were in Redmen Hall, 916 SE Hawthorne.
  • Several Progressive party candidates for state legislature from Portland also won Democratic party nominations in the primary election. The Oregon slate was led by Portland congressional candidate Peggy Carlson, widow of WW2 hero Marine general Evans Carlson. All were defeated in the general election which marked the effective end of the left’s political influence and ushered in the era of McCarthyism.
  • Local sites associated with radical activities included Michael Loring’s El Rancho Village nightclub at 13045 SE Stark, the Methodist Federation for Social Action at 1919 NE Davis, the Friendly Forum, which hosted dissident speakers in the former YMCA building downtown and several of the ethnic halls, such as the Finnish, Polish, and Norse halls and other halls which were frequently rented by radical groups for speakers, dances and rallies.
  • The McCarthy era saw many Portland’s radicals lose their jobs. When they (among many others) refused to cooperate with Un-American Committee at its 1954 Portland hearings in the Gus Solomon Courthouse, Fred Meyer fired John MacKenzie, Mitchell Brothers Trucking fired Bill Lewis, Inland Motor Freight fired Herb Simpson, Reed College fired professor Stanley Moore and Local 8 of the ILWU refused membership to Don Wollam. Wollam’s home at 3154 SE Salmon and MacKenzie’s at 6125 SE 86th were targets of vigilante attacks.
  • Two Portlanders were deported from the US on charges of having been active in leftwing organizations. Hamish MacKay was sent to Canada in 1960 and William Mackie to Finland. The Oregon Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born organized their defense from 4616 SW Corbett.
  • The danger from nuclear weapons testing was first recognized by the Oregon Committee to halt Nuclear Testing in 1958. Its members first distributed literature at the Guild Theater, which recently closed at 1219 SW Park Avenue. The  Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, was organized by Rose Leopold at 1319 SE 32nd Place.
  • Although they were not radicals, Portland briefly hosted the “Roses,” an all black baseball team in 1946. Owned by Olympic champion Jesse Owens, they placed in the West Coast Negro Baseball Association at the old Vaughn Street park when the Beavers weren’t at home.
  • After McCarthyism waned in the 1960s, new movements grew for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Survivors of the “Old Left” supported the younger generation, but the organizations that looked optimistically to the post WW2 world were instead crushed by the anti-Communist crusade. A broad left has yet to re-emerge as the national political spectrum shifted far to the right in the years sketched out here.

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