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John and Idaho Purce

I believe that the people, core people that worked on eliminating this evil - and that's what it was, the Aryan Nations - they would not give up.
--Idaho Purce

John and Idaho Purce

John and Idaho Purce are African-Americans from Pocatello, ID. Idaho is a native Idahoan, and John is from the south. The two were active in human rights issues: John was the director of the local chapter of the NAACP for almost two decades, and Idaho Purce sat on the first Idaho Commission on Human Rights. They have vivid memories of discrimination in Pocatello, and talked with Marcia Franklin about that and other human rights issues.

Marcia Franklin: Idaho, What do you remember about discrimination growing up in Pocatello?

Idaho Purce: There was a movie theatre, the Rialto theatre….we were delegated to the last six rows in the theatre on your left-hand side. And not only was it the African-Americans delegated to those seats, but the Mexican-Americans and native people.

So if you went to the movies on a Saturday and if you were not there early to occupy one of those seats in those six rows on the left side…it mattered not how many empty seats were anywhere else in this theatre, you could not sit anywhere, but in those designated seats.

We accepted it; we didn't know anything, you know, we had no consciousness of civil rights or actually being discriminated against…we never talked about that, because our real life was so rich and so full and not separate and we just all felt we belonged, we were home together.

Franklin: Did you realize there was an active KKK in Pocatello?

Idaho: I did not know until later years…I know that my father and many other African -American men would get on the roof…of the Methodist church…with their shotguns….to protect the streets as the Klan rode down 3rd street and terrorized all of this area here.

We learned that the individual who was head of the telephone company was in charge of the Ku Klux Klan and they had a way of identifying each other in the phone directory, they had a code.

Franklin: John, what was your experience?

John: The railroad had a policy that at that time…there were certain jobs that African-Americans could hold and Mexican-Americans could hold. They were the lower paying jobs and you know the most labor kind of a job. We were not allowed to join the different crafts unions and so consequently you know you were stuck with laboring jobs.

I've always been aware of segregation because I feel it's morally wrong and I feel it's something that has been a detriment to this country, because so many people that's qualified don't get an opportunity to, to you know reach their potential.

You couldn't buy a house in certain places and there's very few restaurants that you could eat at that would serve African-American people….and the same was meant for the Mexican- American and Native Americans, who was (sic) treated the shabbiest of all. You know, they're the only ones that I can remember seeing signs in the windows: "No Indians allowed."

Franklin: How did you cope with it?

John: There's not much you can do; you just have to put it behind you and persevere, you know.

I remember trying to buy a house and being told I can't buy that, or going into a place and they say "You know we can't serve you here." I remember those things; they'll always be with me.

Idaho: I've always felt that because of the migration of southern white people to Pocatello that they brought all of those prejudices that they knew and had done and the way they had lived in the south here out west.

Franklin: Why did you stay?

Idaho: I liked Pocatello and this is home for me. This was home; this was all I knew.

In 1957, Idaho Purce became involved in the Pocatello Civil Rights Committee, started by some professors at Idaho State University and the local chapter of the NAACP. In the 1960s, the group tested the new civil rights laws.

Idaho: The white members would go into a restaurant and sit down and they would serve 'em and then some African-American person would go behind them and sit down and they'd say, "I'm sorry we don't," and they would be told, "You can't do that, there is a national law, civil rights law that says you, this public accommodation, you cannot discriminate, you have to serve everyone."

You change things through education. You bring the law, the legislation forth and say "This is against the law, you cannot do this; this carries a penalty to an employer."

And one thing about employers, when you talk about money and dollars and their liability, they all at once want to listen to what you have to say and "How can we correct this?" And that's what I always wanted to hear 'em say, because then you could help 'em correct it in the right way.

Franklin: You were on the first Human Rights Commission. Tell me how that came about.

Idaho: I was working in Job Service. I received a call one day at work from the governor's office asking if I would serve on that human rights commission and that was my interest so I course yes--(I'll) be there tomorrow! No, I didn't really say that, but that's the way I felt.

Franklin: Could you identify with the people who came before the commission? For instance, was there any job that you wanted that you were not able to have?

Idaho: Oh, yes; I knew what that was like to be rejected based on your color. For many years I worked at SH Crest, a 5 and 10 store. I did every job in the establishment; I worked there 14 years. I started out dusting the counters, lifting up the lotions and dusting; that was my first job.

Then they thought I did that very well, so they told me that I could go up and be a stock clerk, so I went to the stock room. Well, when you're in the stock room where you're in all the merchandise and know where everything is; that makes you pretty important I guess to management.

So I did that, and then they asked me if I'd go down and help cashier count the money so I did that. And there came an occasion where the cashier was going to leave and I asked the manager if I could apply for that job. I was doing it and I knew the job well, and he told me no, that I could not be hired because I was black.

So that really hit home. You know, when you did all these jobs and you worked so well with other people that were white and you knew more than they knew, you never saw yourself as…"I can't ask for this job because I'm black." I guess I never saw myself as black…in that world.

Franklin: When you heard about the Aryan Nations did you take it seriously?

John: I took it very seriously….they chose Idaho because of this lack of minority population because it was one of the few states left in the union that was predominantly white.

It was very frightening because there's a lot of people that believed in that too; you know you also have to be realistic about it. White supremacy is something that's pretty prevalent in our society and you have to be aware of that.

Franklin: Did you feel a threat even though they were up north?

Idaho: Oh yes, but you know in Pocatello we had signs that they were here too. The Aryan compound was at Hayden Lake, but their followers were all throughout Idaho, they were here in Pocatello. We had a church out on Center Street that was one of their little branches so we had individuals working, an individual working at the post office that was an Aryan Nation.

Franklin: Did you ever think they'd be gone?

John: I think they're not completely gone now, but they have certainly been diminished to where they're not a threat anymore; you know nobody wants to say they belong to 'em anymore.

Franklin: What was it like to go on the compound?

Idaho: The moment I walked across that gate I was very weak, I felt as though I was on evil. I felt the evilness under my feet and I just didn't know what to do, and sometimes when you don't know what to do you cry and Bill (Wassmuth) was so strong and he you know whispered in my ear "It's all right, this is what we're here for."

What reduced Butler for me was when I walked into his home and to his kitchen and I saw where….they must've said "You leave with nothing." All of his medicines were on the counter, all his clothes--I mean they just walked in and said "You're out of here now; take nothing with you." And how that must've reduced him if he was a person that had any real feelings about what was occurring.

I believe that the people, core people that worked on eliminating this evil - and that's what it was, the Aryan Nations - they would not give up. They knew it was necessary and they would look for every means to bring it to a closure, to wipe out the compound and hopefully sell the land or do something.

Franklin: Do you think there was a higher power involved in what eventually happened?

Idaho: Of course there was a higher power involved because the pieces of that puzzle….just to think this mother and this witness were not a part of any organization…they were just there. They were just placed there at that point in time so that they could come forth to testify.

John, what lessons have we learned from this?

John: I think it shows you that a few people can do a lot of good things.

Franklin: Where are the new challenges?

John: There are a lot of injustices being aimed at the Hispanic culture. And of course you know, we're all in the same boat together. What affects one of us affects the other.

I think we need to work on education. I think that's the most important thing that we can do to make sure that minority populations are available to be educated because i really feel that's the key to the success of minorities..

Is the fight over? Did you win?

John: Not by any means. There's so much more.

Idaho: I don't think we won because as I said, the Aryan Nations, their compound, their headquarters was at Hayden Lake, but they have little pockets of people all over the state…and I think that at some point somewhere in our state they are going to….rise again and become very visible and begin terrorizing and killing and whatever they do and will do and it will be directed at gay and lesbian people and Mexican- Americans over this immigration issue which is for many people that "they are taking our social services, they are taking, they are taking from us."

Franklin: John, you said there is so much more to do?

John: Yes. There is so much more to do. And I don't know; I don't see a person, a group of persons who are really doing much to prepare for it.

Producer Marcia Franklin with Idaho and John Purce, Pocatello

Producer Marcia Franklin with Idaho and John Purce, Pocatello