Joe Martin grew up in the 1940s in a segregated East Texas town where blacks attended black schools, ate in black restaurants and rode in the back of the bus.
Forty years later, Martin is facing a different kind of prejudice. Although the Lompoc Elks Lodge lets him in the door to attend community functions, they won’t let him join. Because he is black, a number of members said, his application was recently rejected.
“I can deal with the obvious racism a lot better than the subtle kind,” said Martin, a Lompoc realtor. “At least you know where you stand. But at the Elks Lodge they give you the impression everything is OK. Then when you get down to the nitty gritty and want to join, that’s a different story.”
Martin is the second black member in two months to be rejected by the lodge, creating a controversy that has divided the fraternal organization and the community. More than 25 Elks members have resigned, eight local organizations have severed relations with the lodge and about 20 banquets or parties that were scheduled to be held at the lodge’s facilities have been canceled, an Elks spokesman said.
Many in the community have been especially outraged at last week’s rejection of Martin and Ernest Hutchinson’s denial of membership in January, because both are community leaders and are considered ideal candidates for such fraternal organizations.
Even the lodge’s six-man investigating committee, which does background checks and interviews all prospective members, unanimously recommended the two men. But each was rejected at meetings during secret ballots.
“It was stated loud and clear that Hutchinson was rejected for racial reasons,” said Steve Straight, the Elks Club scholarship chairman, who resigned after the vote. “People said right out that the lodge was all-white and they wanted to keep it all-white.”
And Martin was rejected for the same reason, said Gary Stanley, who sponsored him for membership. Stanley said he was “embarrassed and angry” that Martin was “subjected to this kind of thing.”
Martin, 56, is a decorated 28-year Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War and Vietnam. When he retired in 1978 at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, he joined a local real estate firm and became active in the Lions Club, the American Legion and a number of other community organizations.
Martin applied for membership, he said, because many of his friends are Elks and he wanted to become involved in some of the group’s charitable activities. And, he said, the contacts made at fraternal organizations can be helpful for a realtor.
“Both Ernie and I have been what you might call model citizens in this community for a long time,” Martin said. “We figured they’d have no reason to deny us membership, except for the color of our skin.”
About 10% of the Lompoc Valley’s 50,000 residents are black. But the 1,600-member Elks Lodge has no black members. Dave Fort, Exalted Ruler of the lodge, said the majority of members voted for the two men, but a small percentage “who apparently don’t want blacks” rejected them.
Under Elks Club rules, it takes only three opposing votes for a prospective member to be rejected. So although 120 members voted for Martin, he was rejected because nine members opposed him, Elks leaders said. Six white members were accepted for membership on the same night.
‘Archaic ... Voting System’
Fort said his lodge will vote later this month on whether to change the voting procedures and send the result to the Elks headquarters in Chicago. But the Lompoc lodge will not change its membership procedures, Fort said, until the national membership approves the change.
“They use this archaic type of voting system to keep certain segments of society from joining,” said Smiley Wilkins, president of the Lompoc branch of the NAACP. “The Elks have voted before on changing this voting method. But a change has never been approved.”
The NAACP, Wilkins said, is asking a number of groups, including school districts in the county and defense contractors, to cut their ties with the lodge.
The Lompoc Unified School District canceled all activities at the Elks Lodge after the first black applicant was rejected, said Steve Straight, president of the board of education.
“This has caused some divisiveness in the community . . . sides have been taken,” Straight said. “Although most people disagree with the Elks, there’s been letters to the editor in the local paper supporting the lodge. And at a school board meeting, a number of Elks stood up and said they have the right to associate with whomever they please.”
Harold Gray has written a number of letters to newspapers supporting the lodge’s position. The Elks belong to a private club, he said, and have a right to determine who their members are.
“I don’t agree with these so-called community leaders who are pushing the lodge to change its policies,” Gray said in an interview. “I understand that people may think I have a biased point of view, but I still think the lodge should be able to reject people for whatever reasons they choose.”
Of the three other Elks lodges in Santa Barbara County, the 400-member Santa Ynez Lodge has the only black member. The Santa Maria Elks, with more than 3,700 members, rejected a black member several years ago, Wilkins said. And the Santa Barbara Elks, with more than 1,800 members, does not accept blacks, said former members.
Spokesmen for the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria Elks lodges refused to comment.
John MacPherson, UC Santa Barbara police chief, said he recently sponsored a man for membership in the Santa Barbara Elks Lodge. Although the man he sponsored was not black, the prospective member was offended by the comments of the interviewing committee.
“The man was told that the lodge didn’t accept blacks,” MacPherson said. “I spoke to a number of people at the lodge about this and offered to form a committee to educate lodge members and recruit qualified black membership. The lodge leadership said they weren’t interested. . . . I ended up resigning.”
Until 1973, the Elks nationwide required members to be “white male citizens,” but that requirement was eliminated because “a changing society more or less dictated it,” said Elks national secretary Stanley Kocur from the group’s headquarters in Chicago. The current number of black members is not available, he said.
Club for Blacks
Kocur added that blacks can also join the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. “This is an organization of their own,” he said. “It’s a separate group altogether for the black community.”
But in cities such as Lompoc, there is only one Elks Lodge. And when Ernest Hutchinson was rejected in January, blacks in the community were bitterly disappointed. Hutchinson, 57, manager of the Santa Barbara County Housing Authority’s Lompoc office, was a Lompoc policeman for eight years, a past president of the Lions Club and a board member of the local American Legion chapter.
“I really felt I had something to contribute to the Elks,” Hutchinson said. “I thought that after we came through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we’d moved beyond this kind of bigotry. Especially in California and in a community like this. I’ve lived here quite a while and, I guess, I just never realized that there’s an undercurrent of racism here.”
After Hutchinson was rejected, Martin said, he still hoped that he had a chance for membership.
“I thought maybe he didn’t get in because he was on the police force for quite a few years and he could have made some enemies,” Martin said. “I’d hoped it wasn’t because of his color. But when I got rejected I knew what the reason was. There’s no doubt in my mind anymore.”