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Despite Reforms, Blacks Still Struggling to Join Elks Lodges

September 30, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ When the national Elks lodge changed its voting rules over the summer, people such as Thomas J. Montgomery were supposed to find it easier to become members.

But Montgomery, a retired state worker and decorated World War II veteran, was rejected last month by the Elks lodge in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys in a vote many people blamed on racism.

″I feel like a small boy that stubbed his toe,″ said Montgomery, 69, of Pacoima. ″It hurts too bad to laugh and I’m too old to cry.″

Two months after the Elks lodge abandoned what many considered a discriminatory voting system, black applicants still find it difficult to become members of the 121-year-old Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

Montgomery was one of three black applicants denied membership in two California lodges in September, reigniting a controversy over the Elks’ membership practices. A lodge in Salinas rejected a black police officer’s application, prompting at least 20 Elks to resign.

Officials with the virtually all-white, 1.6 million-member organization maintain that the Elks are not racist and that applicants were turned down for other reasons.

National Elks spokesman Robert Yothers called the rejections ″isolated incidents″ that have been ″blown out of proportion.″ He wouldn’t say how many blacks are in the organization’s 2,300 lodges, or whether other blacks in other states had been accepted or turned down since the rule change.

Earlier this year, a lodge in Lompoc, 140 miles northwest of Los Angeles, rejected two black applicants. With community anger and a state attorney general’s investigation hanging over their heads, lodge officials decided to join civil rights activists in pressuring the national lodge to change the voting rules.

Under the old rules, a prospective member could be rejected, or ″blackballed,″ by only three ″no″ votes, regardless of how many members vote for approval. Critics said this system gave too much power to a racist minority.

The Elks voted at their national convention in New Orleans in July to abolish the blackball system in favor of a two-thirds majority. The lodge kept its secret ballots and its all-male status.

The Lompoc lodge, on a second vote Sept. 12, accepted the two black applicants who had been rejected. But on the same night, the Van Nuys lodge turned down Montgomery and another black applicant, Jules S. Bagneris. The lodge also rejected a white applicant, Jack Sheffield.

All three, sponsored by lodge member and state Sen. Alan Robbins, were again rejected on a second vote Sept. 19, prompting angry responses from local politicians and the threat of a city investigation.

State Rep. Howard L. Berman called on the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Van Nuys lodge. He said the public should not be forced to subsidize racial discrimination.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley urged Robbins to resign from the lodge. Robbins said he is staying at the behest of the men he sponsored, who want to reapply after the mandatory six-month waiting period.

″I recognize that in the process of trying to achieve any gain, there’s going to be some pain and struggle involved,″ said Bagneris, 29, a minister and unsuccessful City Council candidate. ″I’m willing to go walk the road now so that in five years from now it will be an easier road for someone else.″

In Salinas, however, many Elks members decided not to stay and fight after the lodge on Sept. 13 rejected policeman Brandon Hill.

Among those turning in their membership were the lodge’s exalted ruler, Scott Erdbacher, along with the city’s mayor, a municipal court judge, a school superintendent and several of Hill’s fellow officers.

″They didn’t want a black person in the lodge. That was all there was to it,″ said Erdbacher, a lawyer. ″I am outraged by this.″

While Elks officials deny that racism was at work, Yothers said that the group would look into the rejections in Van Nuys and Salinas.

″If it is determined or can be determined that people were rejected because of race and if we can identify who cast the ballots against them, action will be taken,″ he said. ″But rejecting somebody on the basis of race is clearly against everything the Elks stand for.″