In the late 1970s, the New York State Human Rights Commissioner was about to find the Plattsburgh Elks Club guilty of violating state laws against racial discrimination. Rather than acquiesce, the club opted for a drastic, self-punishing move: refusing all public rentals of its facilities rather than allow local blacks to rent them. Surrendering their official “public accommodation function” (under state regulations, renting the building or grounds to anyone) was accomplished by adopting a new rule: “The use of the club’s facilities and accommodations shall be granted only to members of the Elks, to sodalities, auxiliaries, and other organizations associated or affiliated with the Elks, and to their guests.”
Taken aback, the state commissioner had no choice but to find, “There is no relief that can now be granted to complainant [NAACP]” because the new rule excluded all organizations, “irrespective of the race and color of the membership.” In short, there was no legal penalty for excluding blacks because the Elks would no longer deal with the public. And that was that — or so they thought.
No one was counting on the likes of Lloyd Archer, whose letter to the Press-Republican back in 1964 said, “Plattsburgh is very fortunate in having a heterogeneous population, and its children will benefit from this with just a little healthy guidance. You see, when your youngsters visit major cities, they will have the intellect not to stare at people, but rather to accept them at face value, regardless of their race.”
An opportunity arose later that year (1976) when Governor Nelson Rockefeller came to Plattsburgh for an open town meeting. Lloyd asked the governor and his team if a club restricting membership to white males was operating legally under the state’s anti-discrimination law. Deputy Comptroller John Feeney said it didn’t sound legal, but he would look into it, and asked to speak with Archer after the meeting.
But when more than two weeks passed with no reply from the state, Archer spoke to the Press-Republican, and pulled no punches. “I realize that the Elks is a private organization, and perhaps they do have a right to choose their membership. But I’m not even allowed to make an application because my skin is black. Morally it is wrong for any organization — white or black — to base membership on race only. Especially when Negroes are in Vietnam right now, fighting and dying with whites to preserve democracy we have here…. Another thing that should be pointed out is that nearly every one of the top citizens in Plattsburgh belongs to the Elks Club. I think that if this lodge is that strong, it’s the best place to start. It’s time they stopped hiding behind the excuse that the rule is in the national charter.”
The Masons, he added, turned him down, but the Elks wouldn’t even let him apply. Neither was good, though, and the Moose were no better. Their constitution contained this nugget: “The membership of lodges shall be composed of male persons of the Caucasian or White race above the age of twenty-one years, and not married to someone of any other than the Caucasian or White race, who are of good moral character, physically and mentally normal, who shall profess a belief in a Supreme Being.”
Now, if you’re a New Yorker reading this and perhaps thinking about those rednecks up in Plattsburgh, it’s worth noting that, of all the clubs in all the cities and towns in the state, only someone in Plattsburgh stood up and fought the club racism issue. According to Neal Hoffman, assistant to the HRC chairman at the time, “I know of no other case on file regarding discrimination in club memberships…. I can’t see why, in this day and age, any club would want to restrict membership on basis of race. But,” he cautioned, “it is one thing for a practice to be morally wrong and another for it to be legally wrong.”
Lloyd Archer did receive public shows of support. There was a letter to the Press-Republican editor from ten PSUC students who cited the Elks rule and said, “Pressure should be brought to bear to eliminate such obvious discrimination and prejudice.” Dr. Peter Pulrang published another letter in the newspaper—a copy of his resignation from the Elks, sent to them a week earlier. He credited the decision to Archer’s exposure of racial membership rules that weren’t widely known, even among locals who belonged.
In his complaint filed with the commission, Archer wrote: “In a state which stands on record as being against discrimination because of race, creed, or color, I do not feel that I must accept the policy of the Elks. To support my contention, let me state that the Elks maintain a lucrative bar and restaurant, and I understand that they are a tax-free organization. As a taxpayer in this state of New York, I object to their tax-free status. No organization which denies membership on the basis of color should be allowed this privilege because it is in direct conflict with the principles of this state.”
While the Elks hoped the controversy would simply end, Lloyd wouldn’t go away. In early 1968, the Press-Republican published another of his letters that smacked of irony, for it was titled, “Archer says he doesn’t desire to join Elks.” Joining, in fact, was never the issue; eliminating their racist rules was his actual goal. Referring to their whites-only policy, he said, “While this may not in any way be illegal under our present set of laws, I object to it as a matter of principle. This is inconsistent with the concept of racial equality and the brotherhood of man.”
Of Plattsburgh’s Elks members, he added, “If they have convictions on racial equality, they should act. They should take such action as is necessary to make their feelings known to the parent body and work to see that the national organization correctly reflects their views…. Please understand that my interest in this is not personal and I have no desire for membership. I harbor no feelings against individual Elks. I do, however, find most objectionable the clause which in effect states that Elks must be white. This is old-fashioned, discriminatory, and contrary to the American way. It would matter little to the Elks if this clause were removed, but it matters much to the harmony in which future generations will live.”
Repeatedly exposing the Elks’ bigotry was ongoing in other states, with the real target being private-club rules in general—and the accumulating effect took its intended toll. In 1973, when the US Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that states could withhold liquor licenses from whites-only private clubs, they included two exceptions: religious and ethnic organizations. The Elks of Maine seized on the exceptions as reverse discrimination against them, and filed an appeal. The court dismissed it succinctly, ruling that there “was no substantial federal question.”
Society demanded change, and in the 1970s, after losing in court, the country’s best-known private clubs began revising their constitutions to eliminate whites-only requirements. Much good has happened since then, but racism remains persistent, and in many cases, deleting the onerous “whites only” from club rules was largely symbolic. Here are some prime examples from 1989 in clubs that still practiced it, and a modern one where the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, was mocked at the Glendale, California, Elks Lodge. (If you watch the video, prepare to be disgusted and appalled.)
Unfortunately, even in the most obvious circumstances, resistance takes hold and progress takes time. But it also takes people like Lloyd Archer to take a stand for what’s right, and do it for the benefit of all.
Note: In early 2019, the national Elks organization told the Plattsburgh chapter to shut down due to low membership numbers.
Photos: headline, Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1968); headline, Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1967)