March 18, 2019
Denver Civil Rights History
Image from The Space Between in the 965 Project Gallery. Monique Archuleta, Estamos Denver, Inkjet Prints, 2018
Denver is known as one of the most progressive cities in the US. Our reputation of being an accepting and accommodating community parallels our generally laid back way of life. This modern version of Denver however doesn’t reflect its blemished past in regards to civil rights. In the 1920’s Colorado had the second largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Even our former mayor Benjamin Stapleton (yes, the one the Stapleton neighborhood is named after) was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 40’s before his death in 1950. However dreadful some of Denver’s past has been, civil rights movements in Denver have had considerable gains and have shown inspiring zeal. From redlining protests to active developments in the Chicano Movement, Denver harbors deep roots in civil change.
Starting in the 1930’s the federal government drew lines around certain areas of cities that experienced things like high crime, high unemployment rates and high numbers of defaulted loans. This categorizing of neighborhoods eliminated federal funding and lending, making it nearly impossible for economies to thrive within the neighborhoods and made it very difficult for people in those neighborhoods to buy homes. These lines were designed to keep minorities from living outside of those designated areas. Banks would refuse to show black home buyers houses outside of these neighborhoods, refuse to issue loans and even lie about selling the home already when really they were just waiting for white buyers. Five Points, Whittier, Sunnyside, Elyria Swansea and Montbello are just a few examples of redlined neighborhoods in Denver. In the 1950’s a large number of African American military families moved to Denver. The overcrowded Five Points made the nearby Park Hill, a predominantly white neighborhood, seem like a good choice. Banks refused to sell these families homes, but with protests and an overwhelming number of African Americans moving to the area, Denver banks realized they had lost a battle of trying to segregate their city. Redlining was finally outlawed in 1968, but today these neighborhoods are still feeling the effects of this unfair practice. These neighborhoods had economies that were compromised due to this segregation, which makes them more vulnerable to gentrification today. Artist Zora Murff, whose work is on view in Gravity of Perception, addresses the issues associated with redlining and gentrification. His work demonstrates that this “slow violence” towards minorities has made it difficult for African Americans to thrive equally to groups unaffected by the racist practice of redlining.
In the 1960’s, the Crusade for Justice was formed in Denver by Chicano activist and author Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez. The civil rights and cultural movement staged protests and student walkouts in defense of the vast Chicano population in Denver. On March 20, 1969 over 100 students took part in a walkout at Denver’s West High School. The walkout was in protest of a teacher that had made racist remarks to a student and to address the lack of bilingual education. Many students also took the opportunity to address the fact that teachers were encouraging Chicano students to join the military while the United States was at war in Vietnam. The walkout was joined by another 200 citizens and started at West High School and went to nearby Baker Junior High where more students joined in. On the return to West High School, the group was met by police equipped in riot gear. An altercation broke out as police tried to guide the marchers to a nearby park. Observer Jim Hall wrote in the neighborhood newspaper West Side Recorder, "Everything broke loose — night sticks started swinging and cops were pulling girls' hair by the handful. Nearly every cop I saw had a mindless look and was beating kids savagely." As a result of the walkout, 25 people were arrested, and six people including one officer were injured. News of the police and student clash manifested an even larger turn out the next day of over 1,200 protesters for the cause. The events on March 20, 1969 are known as the most violent student protest in Colorado’s history. MSU student Monique Archuleta, whose work is on view in The Space Between in the 965 student-curated gallery, shares a collection of photographs from that day. She compares the archival photos taken that day with a photo of the locations today. The photos are a great way to reflect on our past and how things have changed, or an opportunity to question if they have changed at all.
While Denver shows potential for providing equal opportunities and an equal quality of life for all, there is still a lot of work to be done. Our most recent census data shows that 95% of Caucasian high schoolers graduate high school while only 86% of black students and 65% of Hispanic students graduate in Denver. The family income of a black family is only 60% that of a white family income, and only 50% for Hispanics. There is still much work to be done to ensure educational and economic equality for all Denverites. It can be difficult for average citizens to believe they can actually make a change when the issues stem from institutionalized discrimination. However, here are some things you can do to help advance Denver’s civil rights movement:
- VOTE! You hear it all the time, and I will tell you again, VOTE! You have to vote in EVERY election to advance the people in your neighborhoods that bring positive change.
- Go to your local city council meetings. These meetings address issues like affordable housing, homeless aid and local project funding. You have the opportunity to voice your opinion on different issues to your city council members who will ultimately make decisions that impact your neighborhood. Meeting schedule can be found here: https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/denver-city-council.html
- Donate or volunteer to your local civil rights nonprofits. Here are a few in the Denver area: https://aclu-co.org, http://www.naacpdenver.org, https://www.hrc.org/local-issues/colorado