In late 1923, The New York Times ran the following headline: “KLAN WINS VICTORY AT PORTLAND POLLS.” The Portland Chamber of Commerce helped orchestrate this campaign. In the years leading up to that victory for hate, the Ku Klux Klan and Portland Chamber of Commerce pushed for the creation of a council-manager system to prevent marginalized communities from gaining power in our city’s government. In other words, our local business leaders conspired with a white supremacist terrorist organization to create a markedly less democratic city government that still governs us today.

A Ku Klux Klan procession through the streets of Portland around 1923. The Klan was instrumental in promoting the passage that year of a new form of city government in Portland. First proposed in 1918 by the Portland Chamber, it included a city manager and an entirely at-large City Council. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of, Item No. 1265

The purpose of this commentary is simple: atonement and reparations. The Portland Chamber of Commerce has a welldocumented history of collaborating with racists, homophobes and xenophobes. It worked with the most vicious terrorist organization in the history of our hemisphere and possibly the history of the world: the Ku Klux Klan. This organization lynched, castrated and terrorized thousands of Black people and their non-Black comrades. We cannot sidestep this issue. We must face it head on. The chamber must face its past head on.

First things first: The chamber should make a formal apology to all marginalized people of Portland. The Klan targeted Black, Jewish, Indigenous, Asian, immigrant and LGBTQIA+ people. The system the Klan and chamber created has crushed unhoused folks, poor refugees, renters, people with health challenges and LGBTQIA+, poor and Black, Indigenous and people of color communities who have lived in Portland for a century. The chamber should say sorry, admit their wrongdoing and own their past. The fact that their current leader is a white woman does not erase their past crimes. In fact, it raises the stakes: Many Klan lynchings started with the false allegations of a white woman.

Second, they should begin the process of repair. Their apology should be followed with a commitment to stay out of the charter revision process. If someone breaks my leg, I do not trust them to repair my leg. A century ago, they helped break the political legs of Portland’s poorest. They must sit out this battle, contemplating their past deeds – from the sidelines – while not getting involved. Their outsize money and influence failed to stem the progressive tide in November, when they spent more than $1 million opposing five popular referendums. They must not embarrass themselves again. They have done enough of that. It’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is and take their commitment to racial justice seriously.

When they fail to listen to Black activists and try to achieve racial justice on their own terms, they add salt to the wound. Take the example of their cringe-inducing 21-day-challenge. After the state-sanctioned murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and other Black people, they launched a campaign to demonstrate their commitment to racial justice: a “21-day challenge” for their members to learn about racism. This “challenge” was insulting. It made a mockery of our pain by comparing justice to a fitness challenge. This sad and empty stunt seemed tailored to make sure that no one asks the hard questions about how the chamber has come to maintain its influence in our society.

There is a positive role for chambers of commerce in an egalitarian democracy. Their past and present behavior falls far short of this role. They and their clients have used their outsize power to unfairly magnify their voice in local government – down to writing the rules that imprison the rest of us. They should rise to the challenge and fall by the wayside, at least for the charter race.

Comments are not available on this story.