In the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was operating in the open on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Members of the white supremacist group — active-duty Marines — wore KKK insignia on base, posted threatening fliers in common areas and carried large knives to intimidate black Marines.
After a series of altercations on and off base, a group of black Marines responded to a flier advertising a meeting of the KKK on the base. On Nov. 13, 1976, they barged into the room in which they believed that meeting was taking place and attacked their fellow Marines inside, according to news reports at the time.
They had the wrong room. The KKK, sitting on a cache of weapons, was actually in the next room.
A new podcast, “Free the Pendleton 14,” by local reporter Steve Walsh, aims to tell the story of this group of black Marines and bring to light a chapter of local military history that he says has almost been forgotten.
“This story was just going to fade into the past,” he said. “And as we know, just wishing stuff away does not solve the problem.”
Reports from the time suggest that is just what the Marines attempted to do.
While 13 black Marines were jailed and charged with crimes, the members of the KKK were taken into protective custody and quietly shipped off to other bases. (One of the 14 black Marines originally arrested ended up testifying against the others.)
The American Civil Liberties Union was involved and worked with both groups — the accused black Marines as well as the white KKK members.
Membership in supremacist and extremist groups is now against Marine regulations, although in 1976, it was tolerated.
Walsh said he became interested in the story after first hearing about it early in 2017. After reporting by ProPublica and PBS’ “Frontline” identified a Marine who had participated in the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Va., the podcast took on a new urgency.
“This was not a history piece we’re talking about,” he said. “This really is a continuation of something that’s been happening for a very long time. Every element from the command to the media — everybody involved in this case — the community as a whole … just simply did not take this stuff very seriously. The only people who took this seriously were 14 African American Marines.”
The Marine who participated in the Charlottesville riot, Vasillios Pistolis, was booted from the corps in July.
One of the challenges Walsh faced with this project was finding people to interview. The Marine commanders from the time have since died, and many of those involved have common names, which (with only scant military records to go on) makes tracking them down exceedingly difficult.
Walsh was also unable to locate any of the KKK members.
He did interview one of the accused black Marines — Ricky McGilvery, a Dallas-area preacher — and some of the attorneys involved in the case.
Walsh said he did question whether he — a white, middle-aged reporter from the Midwest — was the right person to tell this largely African American story.
“That always kind of concerned me somewhat,” he said. “Should I even be the person telling this story?”
His concerns were assuaged, he said, when he realized that people needed to face the issue of institutional racism head-on.
“It’s whites,” he said. “It’s us. We need to validate that this is real, this happened.”
Walsh is a reporter at KPBS, but his employer was not involved in the project. Four of the five planned episodes are now available on most podcast apps.
Dyer writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.