Oregon Experience

Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev'ry Voice

By Nadine Jelsing (OPB)
April 6, 2015 10 p.m.

Lift Ev'ry Voice explores Portland's African American history with a focus on the turbulent 1960s, '70s and early '80s. At the time, issues surrounding urban renewal, school desegregation and brittle police relations were exploding both nationally and locally.


By the mid-20th century, Portland was still considered the most segregated and prejudiced city on the West Coast.

World War II would fuel racial tensions in the city. During that time, thousands of African Americans migrated north to work in the shipyards. In Portland most were funneled into a hastily constructed public housing project called Vanport. After the war, many continued to live there because of a severe housing shortage.

A spring day in 1948 would change everything. The Columbia River flooded and washed away the town, leaving hundreds of both black and white families homeless. African Americans had little choice where they could move because of discriminatory real estate and banking practices. Most were forced to relocate to an inner northeast district called Albina. As blacks moved into the area, whites moved out into newly created suburbs — off limits to people of color.

The 1950s became a time of hard-fought civil rights victories led by organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League of Portland. The early pioneers helped break the color barrier in housing and jobs, but racist policies and powerful negative stereotypes would prevail in the city.

By the late 1950s, Portland’s disinvestment in the Albina district, lack of capital for mortgages and home improvements, and high unemployment among young African American men had created what was being called Portland’s Negro ghetto. The “ghetto” would soon be targeted for federally funded urban renewal projects.

In 1957 Portland voted to build the Memorial Coliseum and the East Bank freeway in Albina. The construction uprooted the southern and oldest end of the district first — destroying hundreds of homes and businesses owned by both blacks and whites.

In the late 1960s the Emanuel expansion project would displace hundreds more in Albina’s central core. Displaced African-American families were continually shifted further north and east.


In Portland and across the country, a new generation of young black activists was emerging with more militant strategies for changing the status quo. They began demanding equal rights as first class citizens, more jobs and better housing, and an end to police harassment and brutality.

By the late 1970s the Portland chapter of the Black United Front had emerged and gained tremendous power. Its members advocated for equal and effective educational opportunities for all children in their own neighborhoods, and demanded an end to the forced bussing of black children to white schools.

Continual pressure from the black community would ultimately end mandatory bussing in the city. At the same time, activists would focus attention on institutional racism in the Portland Police Bureau and demand accountability of the bureau and its officers.

Portland Civil Rights: Lift Ev'ry Voice is told largely through the words of men and women who lived through and led the struggles for human rights in Portland, and with archival film and images illustrating these remarkable times. Following the premiere broadcast, Think Out Loud's Dave Miller hosts a live televised conversation among community activists and city leaders on civil rights challenges facing Oregonians today. You can follow along and comment on Twitter using the hashtag #ORCivilRights.


Publications and Articles

  • Raymond Burell III, Yesterday, Today & Forever: Celebrating 65 Years as A Spiritual Landmark: the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, Portland, Oregon, 2009.
  • Avel Gordly with Patricia A. Schechter, Remembering the Power of Words, The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader, Oregon State University Press, 2011.
  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth Of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Vintage Books, 2011.
  • Office of the Superintendent, Portland Public Schools, Chronology and History Desegregation/Integration, Portland Public Schools, 1960-1982.
  • Portland City Club Bulletin, Report on Problems of Racial Justice in Portland, June 14, 1968. Vol. 49, No.2
  • Darrell Millner, The Urban League of Portland, On the Road to Equality, A 50-Year Retrospective, 1945-1995, 1995.
  • Karen J. Gibson, "Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000," Transforming Anthropology Vol. 15, (1), 2007.
  • Stuart McElderry, "Building a West Coast Ghetto: African-American Housing in Portland, 1910-1960," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 3, 2001.
  • Jules Boycoff and Martha Gies, ¨We´re Going to Defend Ourselves: The Portland Chapter of the Black Panther Party and the Local Media Response," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 111, No. 3, 2010.
  • Leanne C. Serbulo and Karen J. Gibson, "Black and Blue, Police-Community Relations in Portland's Albina District, 1964-1985," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 114, No. 1, 2013.
  • Ethan Johnson and Felicia Williams, "Desegregation and Multiculturalism in the Portland Public Schools," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 111, No. 1, 2010.


  • Future:Portland  Black community leaders talk about Portland's changing neighborhoods. A film produced by Ifanyi Bell and presented by Oregon Humanities.


Funding Provided By:
Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer
Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust
Oregon Cultural Trust
Clark Foundation

Additional Support By:
Decherd Charitable Trust