9 End of the Twentieth Century and Beyond

End of the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Oregon, like the Pacific Northwest, is a place of natural wonder and majesty. Historian William G. Robbins stated a common historical phenomenon that dominant cultures and their people shape the landscape they inhabit. When Euro-Americans arrived in the region, they rapidly changed the indigenous peoples’ imprint on the Willamette Valley. During that transformation, the Euro-Americans envisioned an Edenic paradise while the Native American communities witnessed an unfolding tragedy.[1] Earlier histories framed the Oregon Trail as a linear narrative of progress and lionized the pioneers of the Oregon Trail as the progenitors of civilization. According to these antiquated histories, the pioneers tilled and tamed the “wild, savage wilderness”, and provided the foundation of a new society, an agricultural republic. The historiography of the American West described the heroic odyssey of the pioneers forging ahead to the Land of Eden challenged by great odds and fueled by courage; consequently, the Native American experience was elided, and merely served as an obstacle in the narrative. The ideological pull of the heroic pioneer narrative united ideas of progress and tenacity with technological advancement and change as Oregon was transformed again by industrialization in the twentieth century. Technological ingenuity in hydroelectric and nuclear power symbolized mankind’s continued mastery over nature in this traditional ethos, but it was growth story that had significant limitations and excesses. Pollution, climate change, human alienation and species depletion are only a sliver of the environmental concerns that have arisen since the beginning of the age of technocratic change and progress. If human communities do not meet these existential threats to their economic and physical well-being, then we may be left without viable options. But fortunately, Oregon met this challenge and had an environmental pioneer of its own, Governor Thomas Lawson McCall.


Black and white photo of Thomas Lawson McCall
Governor Thomas Lawson McCall


During the 1960s, the state government began to enact legislation to preserve the beauty of Oregon and its economic vitality through sustainable environmental practices and policies. Governor Tom McCall wanted to leave behind a living legacy for others to enjoy across the state. During McCall’s tenure, Oregon embraced a preservationist ethos promoting land use laws, restricting urban sprawl, public access to beaches, regulating polluters, and investment and development of sustainable energy resources. Tom McCall was as an ardent environmentalist bitterly opposed to what he called “the grasping wastrels” of industrialism.

Although many environmental policies were established, bitter culture wars over land use and natural resource extraction disrupted these policies. Many working Oregonians who relied on the timber or mining industries found themselves at odds with regulations that promoted preservation and sustainability over highly profitable businesses. In 1990, the Northern Spotted Owl was listed on the Endangered Species list and scientists thought the species was on the brink of extinction. This decision raised the ire of the timber industry and provided fuel to a culture war over environmental concerns. Radical groups like “Earth First!” have made an impression on local politics and received media attention from tree-sittings to protest the timber industry, to destruction of logging equipment. Oregonians on the other side of the political aisle have clashed with environmental protestors often referring to them as “eco-terrorists.” The spirit of the radical protest movement from the sixties continued through the end of the twentieth century and channeled environmentalism as its agita and passion.


Latin Americans, Farm Workers, and the Valley Migrant League of Oregon


The Latin American community emerged in the American West well before Oregon became a state. Vaqueros (cowboys) and mule packers assisted American cattlemen and helped drive cattle into the Oregon Territory. By the end of the nineteenth century, laborers from Mexico and Central America arrived in Oregon to work in the railroad industry, and in 1920 Mexicans were exempted from the restrictive 1917 Immigration Act and worked in agriculture, mining and canneries. But then things turned sour during the Great Depression and Latinx laborers were targets of nativist rhetoric and coercion. Across the West and Oregon, tens of thousands of Mexicans. including those of U.S. ancestry, were deported from the country. When American was pulled into World War II, the war effort drew laborers away from the farms and into the munition factories of cities like Portland. Well over 500 thousand Latinos served in the U.S. armed forces during the war. On the home front, Pacific Coast states experienced a shortage of farm workers from the migration of people to urban centers. The federal government recruited an estimated 15,136 Mexican men at Oregon State University to contribute to the food-for-victory campaign in the state. Public Law 45, known as the Bracero Program, was a bi-national agreement where the federal government began to contract Mexican men “braceros” for temporary employment in the United States. According to the agreement, men would be paid a minimum wage, receive health care and adequate housing, and were to be protected from social discrimination. The efforts and courage of the Latin American community were profoundly significant in helping the United States achieve victory overseas and domestically. They kept commerce flowing at home, provided valuable resources to the American military, and honorably served their country.

In 1951, Public Law 78 enacted under President Harry S. Truman, brought thousands more workers from Mexico to the U.S. to work in agriculture. Several strikes among farm workers occurred in the Willamette Valley, and Southern Oregon in places like Klamath Falls and Medford. Eventually the Bracero Program was phased out, but the need for farm laborers and migrant workers remained in agricultural production in Oregon and the United States.

Latin American Farm Workers and the Valley Migrant League of Oregon

Oregon farms thrive in the Willamette Valley and are a critical part of domestic and international markets. Latin American laborers are a critical part of the agricultural sector in Oregon’s economy. State and federal agencies helped farms employ many Mexican-American migrant families who were vastly unprotected and underrepresented politically. The Oregon State Council of Churches was one of the first organizations to begin to address the migrants’ needs. The Council provided social services to migrant camp residents at Independence, McMinnville, and other locations. The Council of Churches provided testimony before the Commission on Migratory Labor urging inspection of health conditions at Oregon farm labor camps. The Church’s activist role provided a crucial ally to Latin American communities in Oregon. The increasing demand for farming jobs led to the development of permanent Hispanic communities, and the Catholic Church served as an important social institution that helped build and sustain their communities.

The 1960s were a watershed decade for the Hispanic communities of Oregon. Several church and civic leaders in the Willamette Valley, and other advocates of migrant workers, received an Office of Economic Opportunity grant and established the Valley Migrant League (VML) in Woodburn. The Office of Economic Opportunity was a critical part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty domestic program. This organization served seven counties in the Willamette Valley. Their mission focused on education of agricultural laborers, advancement to white collar employment, and whole family care. By 1967, the League reported more than 200 migrant laborers had received high school diplomas through VML supported programs. The Valley Migrant League supported professional development, counseling and placement services for seasonally employed farm workers. The League had five Opportunity Centers with programs in adult education, child care and services, field contacts, and a bilingual newspaper. The opportunity centers were located in Aumsville, Jefferson, Dayton, Hillsboro, Independence, Salem, Sandy-Gresham, and Woodburn.


Photo of César Chávez holding a microphone and a folded newspaper
César Chávez at United Farm Workers rally in Delano, California


The Valley Migrant League felt poverty breeds poverty, and they wished to break that trend. The League was dedicated to social reform and autonomy for many farm workers who faced exploitation and harsh treatment. “Men should not stumble through life, but should walk upright, economically and socially as well as spiritually.” The Valley Migrant League sought empowerment of migrants, ex-migrants and seasonal farm workers under the mission of social justice and economic betterment. The VML employed cooperative strategies where families helped each other build homes. They obtained loans from the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) and used funds to buy land and materials. The Federal Housing Authority and Farm Home Administration funded the operation, but its management was under the VML board of directors. Migrant laborers were facing  challenges with housing, food, sanitation, health and sanitation, child care and education. Although they are key to the success of Oregon agriculture, those without U.S. citizenship status face increasing discrimination from the federal government and conservative political forces.[2]

Cesar Chavez and Boycotts in Oregon

Beginning in 1970, Chicano (Mexican-American) farm workers took total control of the Valley Migrant League. The Valley Migrant League was suspected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other police agencies to harbor subversives and the League was considered prone to communist infiltration.[3] They received opposition from local communities and farmers who did not want outside interference with farm labor. The VML became the heart and soul of the Chicano Movement of Oregon, and maintained an active presence in the Latin American community. Senators Ted Kennedy, Mark Hatfield, and George McGovern became aware of the impoverished conditions of farm workers in the Willamette Valley through the advocacy work of the VML. Senator McGovern toured a farm labor camp in the Willamette Valley and was disturbed by the working conditions. A substantial amount of child labor was used in the agricultural sector in the 1970s; one-fourth of farm wage workers, or as many as 800,000, were under the age of 16 and some were as young as six. In the Willamette Valley, 75 percent of the strawberry and bean harvesters were children who were exposed to pesticides like DDT while working in the fields.  Farm work was one of the most hazardous occupations at the time because of chemical pesticides, and laborers suffered physical ailments from exposure to the chemicals.

Cesar Chavez, the nationally renowned advocate for migrant farm laborers, came to Portland State University to speak at a rally regarding a grape boycott in the United States in 1969. Chavez was cut from a similar cloth as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a non-violent social activist, and promoted the interests of Latin-American farm workers along with Dolores Huerta. He, like King, was an inspiring speaker who fired up the imagination and energies of Latin-Americans through his understanding of their plight. Chavez came to Portland State University to speak at a rally about the grape boycott on December 17th, 1969. “But God knows that we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men. We are men locked in a death struggle against the nation’s largest corporate interests.”[4] Chavez was criticized for bringing outside agitators into migrant communities. Social awareness for farm laborers came about from the Portland Boycott Committee, which focused its attention on a grape strike. The grape boycott was dealt a blow by the federal government when the U.S. Army increased their grape purchases by 350% from non-union growers. Portland longshoremen refused to handle the grapes grown by scab workers. Farm workers of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) blocked the shipment of non-union grapes to South America.

The Valley Migrant League also worked to enhance opportunities of Chicanos in Oregon colleges and Universities. Through the VML’s scholarship program, the first four migrant workers to receive degrees in Oregon graduated from Linfield College in McMinnville. Cesar Chavez spoke at Mt. Angel College, where ex-migrants transformed the college into the Colegio César Chávez from 1973 to 1983, and he supported laborers pursuing higher education as a necessary step to their independence, “Education does not change things overnight. It makes change possible and irreversible. It cannot be stolen or taken away. It can be given away without losing any of it. It is something to hand down to your children and grandchildren like a family treasure. For me education is very important.” Latinx people are the state’s most populous ethnic minority, and they have been able to establish thriving cultural centers and community buildings in cities like Woodburn, Salem, and Hillsboro. No longer are they voiceless, through activism and social awareness, Latin Americans have achieved political representation in Oregon. They are a critical part of the Oregon labor force, and have an enduring legacy in Oregon’s historical development.

Civil Rights for the Gay Community of Oregon

Another group that would achieve autonomy and receive protections from the state government during the dawning of the 21st century was the LGBTQA+ community. In 1971, Oregon rescinded sodomy laws, which targeted gay men, and Portland’s first gay church and newspaper were organized. Oregon has experienced more ballot measure fights over LGBTQA+ rights than any other state. Starting in 1988, the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA) convinced Oregon voters to overturn Gov. Neil Goldschmidt’s executive order that banned discrimination in state government based on sexual orientation. The conservative group led by Lon Mabon, whose rallying cry was “no special rights,” proposed a string of other state and county measures. The group cited ideas linked to the “evils of homosexuality” and claimed gay people were sexual predators of children.

In 1992, voters defeated the OCA’s signature initiative, Measure 9, which would have declared homosexuality “abnormal and perverse”. The Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Kansas in 2003 invalidated anti-sodomy laws as a violation of an individual’s right to privacy. In 2004, voters passed Measure 36, amending the Oregon Constitution to ban gay marriage, and gay marriage was banned in 10 other states. Then, in 2007, Basic Rights Oregon scored a double victory in the Oregon Legislature. Lawmakers passed a domestic partnership law, enabling same sex couples to enjoy the same marriage rights as other couples under the state law, and a law barring discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. In 2008, a landmark decision entitled same sex couples to most of the benefits and responsibilities of married couples, and was met with opposition. By 2015, Oregon paved the way in support of same-sex marriage after U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane ruled that the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning such marriages was unconstitutional in relation to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Native American tribes have historically accepted LGBTQA/Two-Spirit same-sex relationships. The Coquille Indian Tribe of Coos Bay, Oregon, adopted a law in 2008 that recognizes same-sex marriage. The law extends to gay and lesbian partners, one of which must be Coquille, and shall have all Tribal benefits attached to their marriage. They were the first federally recognized tribe to legalize same-sex marriage. The tribe owns 6,400 acres on southern Oregon coastland and is the second largest employer in Coos County. Ken Tanner, Tribal Chief of the Coquille from 1992 to 2014, stated “Native Americans are sensitive to the discrimination of any kind…For our tribe we want people to walk in the shoes of other people and learn to respect differences. Through that we think we build a stronger community.”[5]

Environmental Leadership and Tom McCall’s Legacy

Oregon faces newer challenges posed with climate change, including disappearing snowpack, rising temperatures and annual widespread forest fires. At the same time, Oregon is building a vast infrastructure of renewable energy resources for the economic needs of the future. The people of Oregon have grown to love their land and its beauty, and have gained a respect for the delicate balance between people and their environment. In the spirit of Tom McCall, who helped preserve Oregon’s natural beauty, Oregon has retained a profound environmental legacy which first began when he was a journalist working for the Portland NBC TV station, KGW. In 1962, he created an exposé of environmental degradation that focused on pollution in the Willamette River, called “Pollution in Paradise.” The program fingered Crown Zellerbach and Georgia Pacific as some of the polluters and chastised federal agencies for failing to enforce environmental laws. McCall became an environmental reformer while in office, and in 1967 he warned of “the encroachment of crass commercialism” upon Oregon’s beaches and the threats of privatization of the real estate industry.

House Bill 1601 defined beach areas and “declared that public rights are included within state recreation areas…[and] protected and preserved the rights of the public.” McCall was also instrumental in the conservation of 80 percent of the land area adjacent to the Willamette River in Oregon, which included a six-point program for public use and enjoyment: a recreational trail system, hiking, cycling and riding along the river banks, a scenic drive system, and a conservation easement system providing protection of river banks from construction projects. McCall’s environmental legacy was placed in the public’s hands through his promise, “This is your land, to own, enjoy and care for.” Some of his responses to grade school students who wrote to him sharing their concerns over pollution in Oregon were ahead of their time, “We need to cut down our car use. We need a change in attitude so we can think in terms of having clean air and water and well cared for land and not only think of getting in products and dollars.”[6] McCall also spearheaded the nation’s first bottle bill in 1971, and the following year he approved shutting down the Boise Cascade Salem pulp mill for failure to cut its emissions that were polluting the Willamette River. When workers of the mill protested, McCall told them they were being used as pawns for the company’s profit and gain. In order for industry to play fair in Oregon, McCall felt, “industry must come here on our terms, play the game by our environmental rules and be members of the Oregon family.”[7] He also founded the Land Conservation and Development Commission, an agency that both created and enforced much stricter planning regulations than what were previously in place. McCall was also concerned about population growth compromising the quality of life in Oregon when he spoke at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and stated, “visit us again and again…But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” People in Southern Oregon, especially, can be overheard playfully commenting on the number of Californians that retire in their communities. Many young people who grew up in California attend college in Oregon, with many college football fans, especially, attending the University of Oregon in the past 5 years.[8]

Oregonians are vigilant and divided over environmental protections, and demand transparency from the federal government which to many critics has become an accessory of non-renewable energy lobbying interests and “the grasping wastrels of the land.”[9] Oregon is faced with new challenges as sustainable energy sources continue to develop. Several hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River are slated for removal in the coming years, and large solar and industrial hemp farms are popping up in Klamath and Lake Counties. In 2016, Oregon passed the Clean Energy and Coal Transition Act committing the state to be coal free and doubling its investment in solar and wind energy technologies. Currently, coal power is significantly more expensive than cleaner alternatives like natural gas, solar and wind power whose cost  has plummeted over the past few years. As these changes take shape, Oregonians continue to work together to find a balance between infrastructure development and preserving our natural and cultural heritage.

Epilogue: Civil Society and the Dream of Eden

“May your quest go well.

May we continue to find accord and high purpose.

May we forever prove (by our action) that people can join together for mutual benefit and greater good.

May we continue to work together.

May we face and endure every winter with spring . . . forever on our mind.”

Tom McCall Farewell Address to Oregon Legislature 1975


Oregon is a place of growth and progress, and a natural preserve or sanctuary. It is a community of activists, hard-working laborers, heroes and patriots, the forgotten, and a people forged in the American spirit. We look towards the future in unity. Together, Oregonians will build upon their hopes and dreams bridging gaps of ignorance by bringing people together and listening to each other.



[1] Robbins, William: “Western Voices: Willamette Eden: The Ambiguous Legacy,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 189-218

[2] In 1987 Oregon became a sanctuary state which prohibits state and local law enforcement from using public resources to arrest or detain people whose only crime is being in the country in violation of federal immigration laws. An activist group called Oregonians for Immigration Reform sought to repeal the law which would allow federal officials to enter cities and remove people who are considered “illegals”. In 2018, Oregonians voted down Measure 105 by a large margin which would have repealed the sanctuary law.

[3] The burglary of the FBI office in Philadelphia happened on March 8th, 1971 during the heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Frazier led by Keith Forsyth and other conspirators. They revealed a trove of documents including COINTELPRO which was a secret surveillance operation conducted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI intended to destroy groups and individuals labelled subversive such as the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King. Jr, Nation of Islam and the Valley Migrant League.

[4] Valley Migrant League Records Collection, OHS Archives.

[5] The Oregonian, August 21st, 2008

[6] Tom McCall Papers MSS 625-1 Box 3.

[8] Kaitlin Hakanson.

[9] A phrase coined by Governor Tom McCall.


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Oregon’s History: People of the Northwest in the Land of Eden Copyright © by Athanasios Michaels is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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