LOCAL STORY: The Salem couple, who filed Oregon’s first civil rights lawsuit — and won

This column is part of a regular Salem Reporter feature to highlight local history in collaboration with regional historians and historical organizations. Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s Historic Preservation Commissioner, walks through the history of Oregon’s civil rights law and local cases.

A January 25, 1964 Oregon Statesman article shows the McKenzies, a Salem couple, who filed Oregon’s first civil rights lawsuit after their application to rent an apartment in West Salem was denied.

dr Martin Luther King, Jr. made a lasting contribution to our nation and to Oregon. He was the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader in the 20th century.

While people tend to think that the civil rights movement is focused on other parts of the country, Oregon had its own civil rights movement. The early work of King and President Harry Truman inspired the Oregon legislature to pass its first Civil Rights Act, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1949. Oregon was one of only six states in the nation to have this type of civil rights protection.

The commission chose Ulysses Plummer, the only practicing black attorney in Oregon, as its secretary. Douglas McKay, Governor of Oregon, is quoted in the Capital Journal of July 21, 1949: “This is a great experiment. Oregon and civil rights are on trial. Therefore, I challenge you to do work that stands as a memorial to Oregon’s far-sighted approach to improving human relations.”

Mark A. Smith, founder and first president of Vancouver, Washington’s NAACP, has been appointed administrator of civil rights statutes in the state of Oregon. Smith was one of the few black men working in a position of authority in Oregon during this period. He had come to the Pacific Northwest in 1943 as a shipyard radar installer.

“In Oregon, we have given everyone the right to earn a living, regardless of race, creed, or national origin. We must now go a step further and give him the right to do more than earn a living, the right to develop his skills and make his life a productive and creative pursuit,” Smith said in the Aug. 30 Capital Journal Cited 1963.

In 1964, the first case to test Oregon civil rights law was tried in Salem at the Marion County Courthouse. It was about a black couple who had tried to rent an apartment in West Salem but were turned down because of their race (“Couple Test Oregon’s Civil Rights Law,” Capital Journal, January 25, 1964).

The apartment was located at 268 Stoneway Dr. NW in Salem and belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Bruno Goerke. The complaint was taken to court by the Oregon State Bureau of Labor, which alleged that the Goerkes refused to rent the apartment to the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Compton McKenzie, on the basis of racial discrimination.

Circuit Court Judge George Duncan issued an official court order demanding compliance with the law, and both parties signed an arbitration agreement in which the Goerkes agreed to rent the next available apartment to the McKenzies. The court issued an injunction barring the Goerkes from first renting to anyone other than the McKenzies.

The Capital Journal reported that this case was the first civil rights lawsuit filed under Oregon’s 15-year-old antidiscrimination law. Judge Duncan stated in the Capital Journal of April 18, 1964 that this was the first case of its kind in the United States and would provide a model for solving similar future housing discrimination problems.

In 1965, the Salem City Council established the Salem Human Relations Commission to improve racial harmony in the city. James Welch, representative of this commission, worked to ensure equal treatment under Oregon law.

In a November 23, 1965 Capital Journal article describing an incident at a Salem tavern in which four black men were denied service, Welch is quoted as saying: “The law requires equal treatment in bars, cafes or otherwise public places and will refuse service to any person who is not intoxicated or appears to be defiantly violating state law.”

A November 23, 1965 article in the Capital Journal about four black patrons who were denied service at a Salem bar.

In 1967, the Oregon Legislature expanded Oregon’s civil rights laws. Rep. Connie McCready noted in the Capital Journal of April 5, 1967, “We find that nearly 20 years later, states defining fair employment practices still do not live up to the bold words of that public statement.”

This new law authorized the Oregon Labor Commissioner to initiate trials under the Oregon Civil Rights Act. As a result, Mark A. Smith filed suits against five Oregon companies alleging discrimination in housing.

That same year, the Mid-Willamette Valley Governing Council established a regional Human Relations Commission to promote racial harmony, which served all of Marion and Polk counties. Wesley Howe, executive secretary of the council, is quoted in the Capital Journal, February 8: “The primary purpose of a regional human relations commission is to persuade community and individual attitudes that disregard race, religion or national origin Individuals.” This action was taken after a group of Black Salem-area residents asked the Salem City Council for help in resolving issues of racial discrimination living outside Salem city limits.

Salem City Council initiated the proposal to have a prominent street named after Dr. to name Martin Luther King, Jr. The proposal received strong public support and was unanimously approved by Salem City Council. City employees are currently working on this renaming together with the state. The goal of the City of Salem’s proposal to rename a street is to commemorate the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the civil rights movement in Salem, Oregon. There are currently none after Dr. King designated facilities in Salem or in the greater Salem-Keizer area.

To learn more about the Oregon civil rights movement and its connections to current day movements, including Black Lives Matter, visit Racing to Change, an exhibit created by the Oregon Black Pioneers. The Oregon Black Pioneers is a Salem-based nonprofit historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide.

Other local efforts include the Salem-Keizer chapter of the NAACP, which has a number of active committees related to education and race relations. Salem’s NAACP is facilitating an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march to defend the civil rights leader’s legacy, though the 2022 celebration will be online-only.

Editor’s Note: This column is part of Salem Reporter’s effort to highlight local history in collaboration with regional historians and historical organizations. If you have feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact Editor-in-Chief Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

JUST THE FACTS FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter from $5 per month. Click I want to subscribe!