Nearly 30 years ago I stood in the shade of a willow tree overlooking a Civil War battleground in Georgia, contemplating the blood that had been spilled on those now lush, green grasses carpeting the rolling hills of Kennesaw Mountain.
After living in the Deep South for close to 10 years, the last several of which were spent in Atlanta, I felt I had a different perspective from many southerners regarding that period of our nation’s history. Admittedly, having come from Oregon, I felt a certain kinship to The South’s identity as a rebel.
Yet at the same time, I found it hard to walk the thin line between recognizing The South’s undeniable history while overlooking the shadows of racism intertwined with it.
Last week’s senseless murders of two Good Samaritans in Portland who were trying to defend a pair of teenage African-American girls — one of whom was wearing Muslim attire — served as a reminder that the battlefields of racism run deeper than the Deep South.
In the mid 1800s, when the Oregon territory was larger than Texas and included portions of five western states, the “Lash Law” of 1844 decreed that any black person, free or slave, could be whipped twice a year until he or she left the territory. Eventually, a law was passed simply prohibiting “black people” from living in the territory altogether.
It was a climate that harkened extremists, racists and socialists to establish communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, along with an Oregon Legislature in the 1920s which, rife with Ku Klux Klan members, passed legislation that forbade Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land.
By the 1970s, hate groups like the Aryan Nations had followed suit, jackbooting themselves into areas of Oregon to spread their message of racial purity and the notion of establishing a white utopian society known as “Cascadia.”
At a time when increased scrutiny of each other is slowly approaching that of the McCarthy era, the shadows cast by Oregon’s early history of racism are also slowly creeping over the lessons of our past.
The attack by Jeremy Joseph Christian on that Portland Metro Train wasn’t the result of a concerted campaign of hate. It didn’t stem from organized recruitment.
It erupted from within a vein running just beneath the surface of our society, pulsed by an ever-increasing exposure to suspicion, mistrust and blame offered up as the “new normal” through media — social and otherwise.
Christian expressed his rage against immigrants, Saudi Arabia, liberals, blacks, Muslims and a myriad of stereotypical targets of hate cherrypicked from an endless buffet of extremist ideologies available on the Internet.
Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namakai Meche and Micah Fletcher represented a different kind of ideology when they stood up against Christian, in defense of two strangers who were being threatened by hate.
Best and Meche each died from stab wounds inflicted by Christian.
As we polarize ourselves and choose sides to be aligned with, we can’t risk forgetting the thing that defines us as Americans:
The strength that comes from our unity rather than our division.
It’s the kind of kinship that I want to have as an Oregonian and believe in as an American.
Write Ned Hickson at nhickson@thesiuslaw news.com or c/o Siuslaw News, 148 Maple St., Florence, Ore. 97439.