Confronting white supremacy: civic leaders discuss troubling problem

November 19, 2018

Hundreds of people from all faiths came to a memorial service at Beth Sholom Congregation following the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was a show of solidarity within the Johnstown community. But like elsewhere in the state, Cambria and Somerset County have also had issues with white supremacy in its near and distant past.

Chad Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission said that the state was ranked No. 5 in the country for hate crimes. There has been an uptick in that type of incident since the last presidential election.

“The shadow of hate looms over our democracy,” he said. “It’s not just Somerset. It’s Somerset, York and elsewhere. I think it’s everywhere. We have to be proactive to address it.”

Cambria County has a history of white supremacy. In the 1920s the klan organized faster here than anywhere else, according to several newspaper accounts at the time. It’s also the site of one of the worst racial injustices in American history. In 1923, the mayor of Johnstown ordered every African-American and Mexican who had lived in the city for less than seven years to leave following a racially charged police shooting. More than 2,000 people packed up their belongings and went elsewhere. Some were forced out at gunpoint, according to an NAACP telegram at the Library of Congress.

More recently in 2017, a man drove through Johnstown with a confederate flag and an effigy of Martin Luther King hanging a rope of the back of his truck.

He also had a sign on the back that said, “In Loving Memory of James Earl Ray.”

Ray was the man convicted of assassinating Dr. King.

There is also a history of that kind of rhetoric in Somerset County. In the 1990s, the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest of Somerset County’s only gay bar, the Casa Nova in Jennerstown. and in 2016, a man in Somerset County was charged with ethnic intimidation.

The Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia Laurel Highlands Ghost Co., an organization based in the region, was at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of one woman who died after a white supremacist drove a car through a crowd of liberal protestors.

African-Americans, gay people and Mexicans are not the only people who have been subjected to intolerance in the area. Jewish congregants relayed stories to Beth Sholom Rabbi Irvin Brandwein.

Decades ago, the Klan passed out pamphlets that told conspiracy theories about Jewish people.

“They told me about demonstrations, protests, marches, flyers,” Brandwein said. “It was trafficking in the same old stereotypes. They said the jews wanted wars. The same old stereotypes that we’ve heard over and over. Anti-semitic prejudice and clichés.”

During that time, one of the conspiracy theories that prevailed was a result of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was an anti-semitic text that said there was Jewish conspiracy to control the world’s media, finances and institutions of power.

When asked whether they had felt any ethnic hatred in Johnstown, Brandwein said they have been fortunate to have not had it happen.

Much of the uptick in hatred can be attributed to the demonization of immigrant groups. Robert Bowers, the shooter charged with committing the crime in Pittsburgh, railed against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is an organization that helps refugees and immigrants adjust to America as they seek asylum or to assimilate into the local economy. The tradition of helping immigrants is steeped in the Jewish faith.

“There’s a desire to destroy the alien and fear of him,” Brandwein said. “And then there is this intense yearning to reach out and find out what they are and what can they teach us. Perhaps they can show us. These two impulses exist in every human being.

“The fear of the other and love of the other. The Hebrew Bible says we shall love the stranger. Why? Because we were the stranger. You were on the margins on the outside. You were treated less than first class citizen.”

Some civil rights leaders in the area have stressed the importance of education in combatting hatred. The Community Foundation for the Alleghenies pays for students in multiple counties in the area to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. To learn about a genocide in Nazi Germany that took the lives of six million Jewish people, as well as scores of other groups targeted by the regime. The Johnstown NAACP has also had educational efforts in local schools.

Lassiter said that white supremacists have always existed, but they have been emboldened as of late. He said communities throughout the commonwealth have to work with law enforcement to address hate crimes. Lassiter said white supremacy affects everyone, not just minorities.

“The media tries to divide us and make us think there are no conscious white people who don’t find (intolerance) troublesome,” he said. “We have to be careful to not let that happen. There are a lot of white people pledging their humanity to the humanity of people of color and other groups.

“But in the era of fake news, we would think there are no white people speaking out about demagoguery, racism or bigotry. They do it everyday though. There are white activists advocating for people of color.”