If we think that just because we knocked out the top of the iceberg that we've done our duty and that bias is no longer in Idaho, we're dead wrong.
Marilyn Shuler was director of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights from 1978 to 1998, at the height of the activity of the Aryan Nations. Working with human rights task forces around the state, she denounced the group. In her position, she also worked to provide an administrative process for people protected by Idaho's Human Rights Act to address their grievances. For her efforts, she has received many honors.
Below is an excerpt of an interview Marcia Franklin conducted with her. Shuler tells Franklin that she first read about the Aryan Nations in Idaho in newspaper clippings, and was in disbelief.
Marilyn Shuler: Well, it was just so bizarre. I mean, I couldn't believe what I was reading about these people that didn't think that people who were Jewish or people of color had souls; they didn't see them as human beings. It was just so hard to believe that anybody thought that way.
Very soon after I first started reading about them I had contact with the Department of Justice and…they had a definite position that it was not healthy to ignore them and hope they'd go away, and I think that was very good advice.
Marcia Franklin: How much of a threat ultimately do you think the Aryan Nations were?
Shuler: There were at times in the early 80s a lot of activity that was going on that was very frightening…there was some evidence that they had the addresses of people that were members….of the synagogue, and it was intimidating.
These people, however, to their credit, didn't stop speaking out, and I just get kind of weepy when I think about it now, because they're in other respects ordinary people and they just became heroes.
And these are people who are used to dealing in dangerous situations, but they were frightened about going into northern Idaho because they weren't sure if they would be shot, and that is a terrible way to live.
Franklin: What causes people to join these groups?
Shuler: I think it's basically fear is my own theory, that they're afraid….there were a lot of social changes happening in a very quick time. They were good changes in my view, because I'm a civil rights advocate…but I think some white males found there was a lot more competition out there, and that was fearful for them.
Shuler: When Bill (Wassmuth) and I would talk about the Aryan Nations we'd always say that they were just the tip of the iceberg, and that most of what is really out there of bias and bigotry is below the radar. It's under the water and people don't see it and talk about it, and it's large. It's huge.
And I think if we think that just because we knocked out the top of the iceberg that we've done our duty and that bias is no longer in Idaho we're dead wrong, because it's something that we have to continually work on.
They found only that they had been socialized in some small way to care about people that weren't part of their group. And it didn't have to be a large thing. It would be like maybe going to the store with their grandparent and having their grandparent give money to a beggar.
I think that it's important for us to continue to do that and to socialize children that way so that they will feel a connectedness to people that are not in their group and realize that they have a bond with them that we're all human.
I think that's possible and I think it's important to know that there is leafleting going on today and it's important that the groups like the Kootenai County Task Force are still active, the Bonner County Task force is still active. These groups are still there and they're ready to respond.
And one can only hope that law enforcement will continue to be supportive and to work with the citizen groups to protect people, but also to make it clear that even though there are only a few of them maybe and that we do respect the Constitution and understand that line, that if they walk over that line and it starts to threaten us in a way that is not legal, that law enforcement will be there ready to prosecute.
Shuler: I think the fun part was just the deep friendships that we formed with people because of the threat we were working on, and some of my closest friends today are people I met through that. We lived on low budgets most of us and…I can remember times when four or five women were sleeping in one motel room to save money because nobody had any money and we had a lot of fun that way.
That bothers me enormously and I think that we need to recognize that it's an economic issue as well as a human rights issue because the Hispanic population is growing much faster than the non-Hispanic population and it's a much younger population.
And I'm thoroughly convinced that we can do better by Hispanic students; that they can succeed in school as well as other students. And I just feel more emphasis should be given to working hard to see if we can turn this around.
When we say, "Well, we shouldn't discriminate against somebody because they're gay or lesbian" that's contentious today, but I think in 20 years our children and our grandchildren will look back on us and say, "What were you thinking?" At least I hope that's what happens.
And my father was not the kind of person that bragged about himself, it was one of the few times I can ever remember him telling a story like that, but he told it to me and it made a big impression on me that he was…identifying with a group that wasn't his group.
We were infectious, but we were only infectious for about a week and then you couldn't get polio from me, but nonetheless I became a social isolate and I had no friends and I think people were afraid. And so I was both paralyzed and friendless.
And I realized I was the same person and so I think it gave me a lot of empathy towards people who through no fault of their own are you know are viewed in a negative way and people are afraid to be their friends. In my case it was because people were afraid that I would give them polio and other people are afraid of you because of your race or your religion or, or some other reason, or because you're gay.
Franklin: What are you most proud of?
And I think I've given literally hundreds of workshops to employers and others on sexual harassment….and I feel really good about that.
I also feel good about the fact that the Commission through its work did a lot of mediation and we tried to bring parties together that had a dispute and see if they can settle it themselves.
I think that one of the things that troubles me the most is that the Commission is very underfunded… and it's also probably the weakest commission statutorily of any in the country.
We have no subpoena power…if somebody wants to say "We're not going to respond to you," there's nothing that the commission can do except file a lawsuit, which they're not going to file a lawsuit without any information.
I think we have a ways to go in some areas, and I hope we'll get there in my lifetime.
Those people are really heroes….we all have a responsibility here and probably most of us have done things that have helped to make Idaho the great place it is and that they should pat themselves on the back.