Marine Corps Base in 1970s Had Open KKK Operations; When Black Marines Fought Back, They Faced Punishment While Klansmen Did Not

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A new serial podcast dives into the story of an openly operated Ku Klux Klan chapter that existed on a San Diego, Calif., Marine Corps base in the 1970s.

Free the Pendleton 14” takes a look at the assault that occurred at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., on the night of Nov. 13, 1976.

The “hotbed” of KKK operations at the base was “an open secret” that was tolerated or aided by Marine Corps brass. On that night in November, a group of Black Marines sought to confront the Klansmen. But, according to the podcast, they made a mistake and “wound up in the wrong room, where white Marines were drinking beers.”

marine corps.
A Klansman raises his left arm during a “white power” chant at a Ku Klux Klan rally Dec. 16, 2000, in Skokie, Ill. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)

Black Marines emerged wielding clubs, knives and screwdrivers, which is what they used to attack the seven socializing white Marines. Injuries led six of the white Marines to go to a hospital and 15 black Marines were arrested. Later, 13 of them were charged and jailed after pleading guilty to a lesser charge, according to The New York Times. As for the other two, one was released from custody and the other later had his charges dropped in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.

According to The Washington Post, 16 KKK members at the base were taken into protective custody and quietly transferred to other bases. None of them ever faced punishment.

Soon after the brawl, the Marines initially denied any Klansmen were in their ranks.

“[W]e are not aware of any active Klan organization at Camp Pendleton,” base officials said at the time. But by 1978, they were forced to admit that at least 16 men enlisted had engaged in Klan-related activity, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

In court, the Klansmen and Black Marines were represented by the San Diego Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. An ACLU attorney electing to represent the KKK members in their lawsuit against the Marines stirred controversy, The Post reported.

As the military court heard testimony in the case, the KKK was accused of openly handing out racist literature on the base, affixing KKK stickers on barracks doors and hiding illicit weapons in their quarters. Additionally, The Times reported, troop commanders were accused of allowing KKK members to display their Klan emblem, wear “n—ers sticker” knives and provoke fights with Black marines.

Steve Walsh, a San Diego journalist who works as a military reporter for the local public radio station, KPBS, is behind the five-part podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts and Google podcasts, to name a few outlets. Walsh put together the series, which is not affiliated with KPBS, by sorting through newspaper reports and court filings on the matter from the time period. He also interviewed individuals who were there that night, including one of the accused Black Marines, Ricky McGilvery, who is presently a Dallas-area preacher.

“These are lessons that we seem to keep having to learn over and over again, and if we just forget this history we are simply doomed to repeat it,” Walsh said Jan. 11 to The San Diego Union-Tribune’s podcast “The Conversation.”

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