How Ordinary Citizens of Northern Idaho Defeated the Aryan Nations
In the 1950’s a small group of religious leaders, fed up with Jim Crow racism, started the modern civil rights movement. They demanded that the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment, declaring equal protection under the law to all citizens, finally be enforced. The vast majority of Americans agreed. What followed was a sea change in the cultural and political life of America. Millions of Americans were recognized for the first time as full members of our great country, and almost overnight, civil rights, formerly a fringe concern, became a mainstream one of most Americans.
But as history has shown us, in a democracy, great cultural and political changes do not occur without a large array of opponents.
The opponents to the civil rights movement came in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other Klan-like groups. They were willingly to do anything to stem the tide of this historical moment in our country. There were political assassinations, murders, bombings, arson, and a host of other criminal activities. But the civil rights leaders did not flinch, nor did the American people. After it became apparent that there was no turning back, many in the Klan started to pursue other activities, while others re-entrenched themselves in their old Klan haunts in the South and began a defensive rear guard action. Yet another group, the Aryan Nations, looked for a new location to pursue their agendas of racial hatred and racial exclusion. They zeroed in on the Inland Northwest.
The Aryan Nations believed that the Inland Northwest, and particularly Kootenai County, Idaho, was predominately white—not for historical reasons or for patterns of employment during World War II—but because we were here to escape the rest of American society and its religious and racial diversity. They assumed that once we were exposed to their beliefs, we in the Northwest would gravitate to their cause in great numbers and help create the Aryan Nations’ vision of an all white society, separate from the rest of America.
The Aryan Nations soon learned that the people of the Inland Northwest would not gravitate to them in any significant numbers and switched tactics. The group began a prison ministry across the country seeking out white prisoners to come to the Inland Northwest. They believed that if they could not change the minds of the people living here, then they would import people who shared their beliefs. If enough criminals came to the Aryan Nations infamous compound, known as the “Campus of Hate,” to learn the doctrines of vitriolic racism taught here, and then brought those ideas out to the community, the Aryans surmised, the area would become so unfriendly to ordinary Idahoans that we would be forced to leave.
One of our most successful political actions was to defend and support the 2003 re-election of Hayden, Idaho Mayor Ron McIntire, when his opponent, Richard Butler, the notorious white supremacist who founded the Aryan Nations, viciously attacked the mayor’s religious affiliation as a member of the LDS Faith. Butler only received 50 votes out of 2,300 votes cast. Butler’s death in 2004 brought this challenging era to an end, and launches us on a new era with the building of a major human rights center in Coeur d’ Alene thanks to a very generous $1,000,000 gift from Greg Carr.
When the dust finally settles, and the passage of time allows us to look back at this chapter with clear judgment, we hope we will be able to say that the final victory over this dark and evil opponent here in Kootenai County and the Inland Northwest was simply democracy at work: democracy for each of us and to all of us.
Tony Stewart is a co-founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and taught political science at the North Idaho College for 38 years. Norm Gissel is an attorney and civil-rights activist who has been a member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations since 1984.