Context is everything. So, without cherry-picking, here’s the exact, complete quotation from a longtime member and former leader defining a prominent group in Plattsburgh back in 1976. “The Elks are a fraternal organization based on the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity. Membership is open to men 21 years of age or older who are citizens of the United States, believe in God, and have not been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral issues. There is no discrimination against race, religion, politics, economic status, or any other circumstances.”
Such beautiful words and noble sentiments … who wouldn’t want to be a member? But in a sense, that description is taken out of context, and the bigger picture is important. The Elks were formed in February 1868, so in 2018 the organization celebrated its 150th birthday. But for its first 104 years, its constitution was unambiguous about who was welcome among their ranks. “No person shall be accepted as a member of this Order unless he be a white male citizen of the United States of America, of sound mind and body, of good character, not under the age of twenty-one years, and a believer in God.”
In case you missed it, a very important word appears just before “male citizen.” That’s right: the Elks were exclusively white for more than a century, and ironically, there was nothing “benevolent” about the official change to non-racism, which was virtually forced upon them. (Note: There is the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW), referred to as the Black Elks on the BPOE website, but that group is not part of this story.)
As you might have read here earlier this year, the most prominent person in Clinton County who battled for the rights of underdogs and minorities, including blacks, was Jacqueline Archer. As president and longstanding member of the local NAACP chapter (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), she was much more high-profile than her husband, Lloyd, who ran a business in Plattsburgh.
The incident we’re concerned with began innocently enough. The local NAACP was planning a dance and needed a venue. George Cook, chairman of the dance committee, called the Elks Club and spoke with the lodge steward, who provided four vital pieces of information: the building would probably be available on the date requested, the rental cost of the hall was $50, a special liquor license was required for an additional $30, and final approval was in the hands of the Elks executive committee.
It was all standard stuff — until Cook made a second phone call to confirm the booking. That’s when he was informed about a fifth requirement: without confirmation that 50 percent of the would-be dance attendees were Elks members, the rental would be denied. Cook advised NAACP president Jackie Archer, who decided to file a complaint with the NYS Human Rights Commission (HRC). It seemed obvious to her that the Elks steward wasn’t initially aware of the organization’s whites-only policy, and before Cook’s second call, Elks executives had consulted the steward on how not to grant the rental request.
The state investigation examined voluminous records of past events, including special requirements imposed by the Elks, and contacted a long list of groups that had rented the Elks’ facility. I often am dismayed by TV reporters and “analysts” who say someone was “perhaps” untruthful, inaccurate, not exactly correct, or their claims don’t bear out. So I’ll just say it plainly: the Human Rights Commission found that the Elks Club was lying to them.
The Elks claimed they were not a place of public accommodation (defined as a government-owned or privately owned entity that is open to, or offers services to, the general public). The HRC proved that the Elks had rented their building to 15 organizations during a recent year and were proprietors “of a place of public accommodation.” The evidence was irrefutable.
The Elks claimed that the 50-percent rule might have been in error, and that maybe “40 percent would suffice.” The HRC found that most if not all renters were “unaware that there was any requirement that any given number of persons in attendance of the function would be required to be Elks.” Again, they were flat out lying.
A commissioner described the issues in plain English. “It is fact that the membership of the Plattsburgh Chapter of the NAACP is predominantly Negro [several whites belonged as well]. It is further true that Elks Lodge 621 at Plattsburgh, in accordance with national rules, does not admit Negroes to membership. Under these circumstances, the effect of the rule is that the lodge is, in fact, to exclude an organization that is all-Negro or predominantly Negro in its membership.”
His findings were presented to attorneys for the lodge, but they neither accepted nor refused his ruling, instead asking for time to consult with state Elks officials before taking a stance.
Meanwhile, Reverend Richard Janke of the Plattsburgh Human Rights Commission voiced a positive view of the situation to reporter Kathy Brothers of the Press-Republican. The local club could take a giant step forward by amending their ruling, he said, and “petitioning the national organization for a change…. I am sure there are enough men of good will in the Elks who will want to sit down and discuss a change in the bylaws…. Right now, the local Elks have the opportunity to do something really great in the cause of human relations.”
And that brings us to the most depressing, dismaying part of the story. As it turned out, the chance to do something great in the name of humanity and race relations was quite resistible after all. So much for “benevolence,” defined in the dictionary as the “desire to do good to others; goodwill; charitableness.”
Their decision instead was stunning, uncharitable at best, and overtly racist. Rather than allow black people to use their facility for a dance, they opted to surrender their designation as “a place of public accommodation.” Foregoing all the income earned annually from renting the Elks building to the public was preferable to letting people of a different skin color dance on their floor, which was reserved for white people only.
Next week, the conclusion: standing up unflinchingly to racism.
Photos: headlines, Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1967)