Oregon’s Racist Past

Starting in the mid-19th century, and extending through the mid-20th century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states.

Linda Gordon | Excerpt adapted from The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition | Liveright | October 2017 | 17 minutes (4,587 words)

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, and extending through the mid-twentieth century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states. Its legislature tried to keep it all white, excluding people of color with a host of discriminatory laws. So when the Klan arrived in 1921, its agenda fit comfortably into the state’s tradition. When I tell people that Oregon was a stronghold of the Klan, they express surprise, even shock, because of the state’s current reputation as liberal. But that is because they don’t understand its history or demography. Neither did I, although I grew up there.

The Klan gained particularly formidable power in Oregon, especially in my hometown, Portland; Oregon shared with Indiana the distinction of having the highest per capita Klan membership. Moreover, the Oregon Klan’s muscle led it more actively into electoral politics than most other state Klans.

Klan recruiters probably understood Oregon’s potential. Like Indiana, its population of approximately eight hundred thousand in 1920 was overwhelmingly Protestant and white, and 87 percent native-born; of the foreign-born, half were US citizens. Its approximately 2,400 African Americans constituted 0.3 percent, its Catholics 8 percent, and its Jews 0.1 percent of the population, and this demography was both cause and effect of its history of bigotry. In 1844 the Oregon Territory banned slavery but at the same time required all African Americans to leave. In 1857, in the process of achieving statehood, it put two pieces of a future constitution to a referendum vote, and the same contradiction emerged: 75 percent of voters favored rejecting slavery, but 89 percent voted for excluding people of color. Meanwhile, the state offered 650-to 1,300-acre plots of land free — to white settlers. Prevented by federal law from expelling existing black residents, its constitution banned any further blacks from entering, living, voting, or owning property in Oregon (the only state to do this), to be enforced by lashings for violators. In 1862, forced to vacate the previous ban, it levied a $5 (worth $120 in 2016) annual tax on African Americans, Chinese, Hawaiians, and multiracial people who persisted in living there. The Chinese were specifically denied state citizenship. (In 1893 La Grande, Oregon, whites burned that city’s Chinatown to the ground.) Oregon refused to ratify the enfranchisement of black men by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; it only did so — and this may come as another surprise — in 1959 and 1973, respectively. In 1906 the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the prevalent racial segregation of public facilities was constitutional. Interracial marriage was prohibited until 1951.

When I tell people that Oregon was a stronghold of the Klan, they express surprise, even shock, because of the state’s current reputation as liberal.

World War I had created a boom market for Oregon’s key products: lumber, paper, grain, and ships. As global commerce grew, so did the Port of Portland. Although 110 miles from the Pacific, it sits at the confluence of the mighty Columbia and the Willamette Rivers, which produced a valuable deep-water port. Although the 1912 federal Rivers and Harbors Act transferred authority to the Port of Portland Commission, the port was then so important nationally that the US Army Corps of Engineers maintained it. Then a 1920s postwar recession reduced demand for Oregon products, notably lumber, just as Portland experienced a taste of the “Roaring Twenties” — dance halls, speakeasies, movies, flapper fashion. This upsurge in visible “sin” naturally produced an opposition, including an evangelical revival, which in turn built a demand for action to suppress it. The combination of economic and cultural factors and a rich vein of possible recruits contributed to the Klan’s high-velocity Oregon success.

The Klan also had a ready-made organizational base in Oregon. The Federation of Patriotic Societies (FoPS) arose in 1916 to fight Catholicism and to prevent Catholics from holding public office. It was headed by a virulently racist Presbyterian minister from South Africa. Very secretive — the Oregon Voter wrote that “the names of neither delegates nor participating bodies have so far been disclosed” — FoPS served as the political arm of seventeen fraternals, including the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, the Scottish Rite Masons, and the Loyal Orange Order from Northern Ireland. It pressured politicians to declare their religious allegiances, thus making Protestantism a public political qualification. By 1922 FoPS would become, for all political purposes, a Klan appendage, with the Exalted Cyclops as its president.

The film Birth of a Nation further tilled the soil for the Klan in Oregon, as it did everywhere the second Klan arose. Playing in Portland theaters first in 1915, and again in 1918 and 1922, the last showing under Klan auspices, it drew huge audiences despite the unusually high admission price of two dollars. Protests on behalf of the approximately 1,500 African Americans in Portland persuaded the mayor to draft an emergency ordinance to ban it, but the city council would not go along. Yet this very mayor joined the Klan just a few years later, posing for a formal photograph with Klansmen and the chief of police — an indication of the Klan’s power to change minds, or to intimidate.

The Klan arrived in Oregon in 1921, when recruiter Luther Ivan Powell arrived from California. Simultaneously, in a contested school board election, explicitly anti-Catholic candidates beat out the slate endorsed by all three major Portland newspapers. As is so often the case when examining 1920s religious prejudice, it is hard to know how much of the vote was anti-Catholic and how much a revolt against elite political insiders. In any case, Klan recruiter Powell received an enthusiastic welcome. He began to gather joiners through a series of moves that were by then standard procedures for the Klan: after rounding up some Masons and other fraternal members, recruiters would arrange a public lecture by an “escaped nun” — in this case Sister Lucretia (Elizabeth Schoffen); distribute anti-Catholic pamphlets, slipped into cars and under doors; put on a lecture by a fire-and-brimstone evangelist; and persuade some ministers to endorse the Klan in sermons.

Powell quickly established Klaverns in Oregon’s six largest towns and soon boasted of fourteen thousand members, about 2 percent of the state’s population. He claimed a thousand members in Portland within three months, and nine thousand before long; Portlanders eventually constituted 64 percent of the state’s Klansmen. Crosses burning on Portland’s Mt. Tabor and Mt. Scott were visible for miles. Nearly every community with a population of one thousand or more had a Klavern. The small town of Auburn in eastern Oregon reported being “flooded with application blanks” in one week. By 1923 the state Klan professed to have fifty-eight Klaverns and as many as fifty thousand members, not including members of the WKKK or the youth groups. (These figures seem to be typical Klan exaggerations, but on the other hand they do not include the many nonmembers who supported the Klan agenda.)

Further roiling Oregon’s traditional political alignments and contributing to Klan growth was a series of strikes in 1922, by longshoremen and railroad workers, both vital to the state economy. The IWW’s relative strength in the Pacific Northwest probably explains why the Oregon Klan emphasized anti-Communism more than in other regions. Portland’s mayor and the mainstream press warned of the “overthrow of law and order, the ruin of industry, and the Russianizing of the world.”

Recruiter Powell soon ceded leadership to Fred Gifford, who became Exalted Cyclops of the Portland Klan. (Powell later went on to lead a paramilitary group, the Khaki Shirts of America, which identified itself as the vanguard of US fascists; he would also join William Dudley Pelley’s fascist Silver Shirt Legion in 1933.) An engineer, Gifford began as a telegraph operator for the Southern Pacific Railroad, then became president of an Electrical Workers union local (though after a few years he became known as one of three “$1,000 Scabs” who had betrayed striking workers), then a supervisor for the railroad, then Bell Telephone’s manager in charge of construction and maintenance for Oregon and Washington, then Northwestern Electric’s chief of transmission.

This is the profile of an ambitious man as well as an employment biography typical of a Klan leader, moving from skilled working class to management. He was also a prominent Mason. He became a statewide power broker, able to grant or withhold support to politicians or lobbying groups eager for Klan support.

Klannish nativism was ever flexible. In Oregon, Klan efforts were almost exclusively anti-Catholic. In the San Diego region, some Catholics joined.

A third Oregon Klan figure, this one less disciplined and more explosive, was Lem Dever, editor of the Klan’s Oregon newspaper, the Western American. Having worked for the federal government’s American Committee on Public Information, a World War I propaganda agency, he became a publicity expert and practitioner of black psywar. To some extent he represented the pro-worker side of the Klan, promising in his paper that he would not accept advertising from open-shop (that is, anti-union) businesses and pledging his support for the AFL. At the same time, he was one of the few Klan leaders to promote anti-Communism, which he fused with racism, writing in the paper that “he had personal knowledge” of Lenin’s plans “to lead the colored hordes of the world in battle against America.” The Western American was stocked on newsstands, and Dever promoted it with a sales contest that offered a Reo touring car valued at $1,895 as the prize. He defamed the major Oregon newspapers as “pope-bossed, Jew-kept.” He used his paper to terrorize individuals, as when he defamed a Greek American for late rent payments and rejoiced when the man fled town. After a few years a feud with Gifford led Dever to quit and denounce the Klan, but not to reject its ideology or methods.

Anti-Japanese sentiment also helped build the Klan. Japanese immigrants began arriving after the federal government banned Chinese immigration in 1881, and thousands worked on constructing railroad spurs for logging companies. By 1907 Japanese immigrants constituted 40 percent of railway workers, while in Portland and other towns they ran rooming houses and restaurants and worked in canneries. Taking farm labor jobs, they also bought or rented land to farm independently. Expert cultivators, they were soon out-producing and outselling many white farmers, whose resentment built the Klan’s rural support. Near Portland, Japanese truck farmers flourished, in part because they operated through a cooperative; their productivity generated white claims that the Japanese would drive out “American” farmers. In the Hood River valley, where anti-Japanese sentiment was particularly strong, an anti-alien organization had arisen before the Klan arrived, and it was soon joined in defaming the Japanese by the American Legion. In central Oregon, where a California developer, the Portland-Deschutes Land Company, had hired Japanese workers, protests forced it to fire them.

Out of Oregon’s 1920 population of about eight hundred thousand, people of Japanese origin numbered only five thousand (0.006 percent); although they were mostly rural, fewer than 2 percent owned land, totaling less than three thousand acres (0.008 percent of the land). But it does not require actual economic competition among ethnic groups to generate anger at alleged economic threats. Moreover, anti-Japanese sentiment grew also among the urban population. The Klan escalated this fear of “the Mongolian races.” Even the anti-Klan governor, Ben Olcott, told the legislature that “Mongolian and Malay . . . cannot amalgamate and we cannot and must not submit to the peaceful penetration of the Japanese and other Mongolian races.” The increasing international prestige of Japan also contributed. Oregon nativists saw the Japanese as the “threatening vanguard of a rising nation intent on . . . subverting communities.” In the 1920s in Oregon, “race relations” meant Japanese-white relations.


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In 1923, at the peak of Klan ascendancy, the state legislature passed an alien land act, barring immigrants from owning or renting land, with exactly one negative vote. (In nearby Washington State, the legislation even prohibited American-born citizens of Japanese origin, the nisei, from renting land on behalf of their parents; the Yakima Indians, theoretically exempt from state legislation, had been renting land to Japanese farmers for decades, but the secretary of the interior ruled that they must obey the prohibition.) Oregon also banned immigrants from operating hospitality businesses, so as to make it harder for the Japanese to find places to stay. Then it imposed a literacy test that left the right to vote in the hands of local registrars whatever their bias. Even a strongly anti-Klan candidate of 1922 favored denying land ownership or control rights to “Orientals.”

In southern Oregon and California, the Klan also targeted Mexican Americans, as well as Mexican nationals who came north to work in agriculture. Hiram Evans dangled an anti-Communist line to hook grower support: “Thousands of Mexicans, many of them Communist, are waiting a chance to cross the Rio Grande.” Many of these migrant farmworkers found that they had to vary their following-the-crops routes to avoid Klan attacks. By the 1920s, West Coast agriculture depended on a labor force of Mexican origin, so the interests of large corporate growers clashed to some extent with those of the Klan, and one farmworker recalled that growers had to patrol their fields to protect their field hands because “their crops were worthless without Mexicans.” Still, Klan attacks probably made farmworkers less militant in their protests, so growers may well have appreciated the Klan’s intimidating influence.

Klannish nativism was ever flexible, as was its ability to respond to local conditions. In Oregon, Klan efforts were almost exclusively anti-Catholic, mentioning Jews only occasionally. In the San Diego region, some Catholics even joined: members of the Catholic War Veterans and Knights of Columbus were known to be Klansmen. And just as the Klan bent its agenda to fit local conditions, so did the Catholic Church. In Southern California, many white Catholics supported the Klan. Mexican anthropologist Ernesto Galarza reported that the Irish American clergy “had no sympathy for Mexicans who were seen as an endangerment to traditional American values. They often ignored the Klan’s abuses toward Hispanics.” In Oregon, as in Maine, the Klan established an affiliate for immigrant white Protestants, the Riders of the Red Robe.

The Portland police department became entirely KKKized: it established the Portland Police Vigilantes, a hundred-man group appointed by Gifford and commissioned as police deputies, while a nine-man Black Patrol used violence with total impunity.

Portland dominated the Oregon Klan both absolutely and proportionately. The five-thousand-seat public auditorium filled time after time for Klan rallies. At one lecture, the more than fifteen hundred who could not get in “surged” angrily through the center city; eighty-three policemen and fourteen deputy sheriffs were required to control them. Hysterical speeches by “escaped” nuns and priests could be assured of thrilled audiences. The Portland police department became entirely KKKized: it established the Portland Police Vigilantes, a hundred-man group appointed by Gifford and commissioned as police deputies, while a nine-man Black Patrol used violence with total impunity; in 1923, it rounded up suspected IWW members and drove them out of the city.

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While Oregon’s racial resentments seethed, and while local Klaverns continued to agitate about local issues, a single campaign soon became the Klan’s Oregon priority: getting rid of Catholic schools through a constitutional amendment. This was also a top item on the national Klan agenda, and similar bills were proposed in California, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and Alberta, Canada. Promoters of a ban on Catholic schools saw Oregon as a test case, and hoped it would lead the way, because of its demography and history. Advocates admitted that there was no “immediate and particular danger” from Catholic or Jewish immigrants in Oregon, “but in the East the number of foreign-born and indifferent [sic] people is so overwhelming that such a bill as this one could never be put through.” Oregon would “set the example for the rest of the country,” argued supporters. They drew on Oregonians’ nostalgic romance with the common schools of “pioneer” days; a key pamphlet, “The Old Cedar School,” made the one-room schoolhouse a winning symbol.

The Klan charged that the pope was using parochial schools in his plot to take over America. The Klan did not initiate this conspiracy theory; nineteenth-century nativists did. Even Lyman Beecher, once the country’s most revered evangelical, had made this charge in 1835. Standard textbooks, the Klan alleged, “were loaded with Catholicism. The Pope was dictating what was being taught to the children.” Thus in its campaign against Catholic schools, the Klan could claim to be fighting a defensive, not offensive, battle — positioning Protestant Anglo-Saxons as victims.

But the Klan also argued that public schools needed improvement. Imperial Wizard Evans cited the results of the World War I draft, in which 24 percent of young men were found to be illiterate. Presumably this resulted from Catholic subversion of public education. Anti-Catholicism thus made Klansfolk into ardent supporters of public education. Like Progressives, they called for more spending on the schools; unlike later conservatives, the Klan did not make cutting taxes or “small government” part of its agenda. It also called for a federal department of education, another agenda item shared with progressive reformers. This was not an original idea. The Sterling-Towner bill of 1919 had first called for creating such a department, raising educational standards, and providing federal funding for schools. That bill also aligned with Klan views that schools should promote “Americanization,” then the liberal version of anti-immigrant policy. The national Klan also supported increased spending on public schools, higher pay for teachers, and literacy programs; when Sterling-Towner was reintroduced (as the Towner-Sterling and then Sterling-Reed bills) in 1921 and 1924, the Klan supported it. Ironically, conservative opponents of these proposals, aligned against the Klan on this issue, called the bills “a bagful of bolshevism.”

Amending the state constitution to make public schooling compulsory required a referendum. Progressive Era reforms had provided for referendums, initiatives, and recalls in many states; their primary motive was to counter the power of wealthy corporations, especially railroads, that controlled many western states in the 1890s. Oregon was one of the first states to allow these citizen initiatives, in 1902.

The Klan set to work gathering signatures to create a referendum to amend the state constitution so as to require all children to attend public schools and only public schools. Using a new strategy, the Oregon Klan established a front group, the Good Government League, which united other “patriotic” societies, including the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, the Scottish Rite Masons, the National League for the Protection of American Institutions, and the umbrella Federation of Patriotic Societies. When the initiative went to the polls in 1922, the Scottish Rite Masons was its named sponsor, having already mounted a national campaign against Catholic and “Bolshevist” influence in the public schools, but it was widely assumed to be a Klan initiative.

The Klan’s Oregon strategy deemphasized the negative side of the amendment — prohibition of Catholic schools — and emphasized instead its positive content. It argued that strengthening Americanism — that is, patriotism — required educating all children in the same public schools. It emphasized the importance of unity — that is, conformity — in what children learned. Moreover, since Oregonians tended to revere the “pioneers” who had brought Euro-Americans to the state, the Klan presented its schools initiative as furthering “the interest of those whose forefathers established the nation.” In an attempt to make the proposed amendment constitutional, the authors wrote it to ban all private schools, not just Catholic ones. Through these strategies, the Klan probably drew in supporters who might have opposed outright discrimination against Catholics.

The Klan also conducted a campaign to get non-Protestant teachers fired, a drive that soon extended to all government workers.

Some Klan propaganda for the “schools bill,” as it came to be called, promoted it on egalitarian grounds, condemning private schools as sites where the rich removed their children from ordinary folk. One statement declared that “we do not believe in snobbery and are just as much opposed to private schools of the so-called ‘select’ kind as we are to denominational private schools.” Advocates characterized opponents of the bill as “millionaires.” This argument resonated with Oregon’s strong populist traditions, including progressive populist ideas, and drew on resentment of elites. But Portland, the center of support for the Klan and the schools referendum, had very few secular private schools; and in Oregon as a whole, more than 60 percent of privately schooled children were in Catholic schools. The prejudice behind the proposed amendment was nevertheless clear to all. One Catholic who saw the “Little Red Schoolhouse” float in a Klan parade (described in the opening depiction of a Klan rally) as a ten-year-old understood it perfectly: “It was a body blow.”

The Klan was silent as to whether public school attendance should result in conversions to Protestantism, though this was the hope. In campaigns against Catholic schools, Klan leaders frequently spoke in defense of the separation of church and state, but in fact they were simultaneously promoting Protestant religious content in public schools. “One of our purposes is to try to get the Bible back into the schools,” Rev. Sawyer announced. Countless Klan political cartoons showed Catholics throwing Bibles out of schools.

The schools campaigns also showed that Klan bigotry was differentiated, especially between anti-black and anti-Catholic agendas: the Klan wanted Catholic children in public schools, while it was determined to keep African American children out. Klan bigotry swerved between contradictory premises: that immigrants of, say, Italian, Irish, or Finnish descent could be educated to become good Americans with Protestant values (an environmental premise), while people of color, notably African Americans and Japanese Americans, were of biologically inferior stock (the eugenical, hereditarian premise) and could never become “100%.”

Meanwhile, the referendum on the schools amendment coincided with the 1922 state election. Called by many Oregonians “the Klan election,” it was high drama. The Republican candidate for the governorship, incumbent Ben W. Olcott, refused to support the schools amendment, less from opposition to its content than because he felt it would strengthen the Klan, which he considered divisive. The Democrat, Walter M. Pierce, was an ardent Klan ally, and Exalted Cyclops Gifford campaigned and raised money for him. Olcott called the Klan a dangerous force, insidious, fanatic, aiming to “usurp the reins of government.” Pierce used, by contrast, a stealth strategy: rather than praising the Klan, he praised the schools bill, insisting that he was not anti-Catholic but pro-American. Still, he emphasized his Protestant lineage repeatedly: “Every one of my ancestors has been a Protestant for 300 years.” His platform was contradictory, as he campaigned for cutting taxes despite the fact that abolishing private schools would require higher taxes to support the public schools.

At the same time, economic interests influenced the campaign. Portland’s “big three” Klansmen all worked for utilities businesses — Northwestern Electric employed Gifford; Pacific Telephone and Telegraph employed both Ole Quinn, Gifford’s right-hand man, and W. C. Elford, secretary of the Federation of Patriotic Societies — and these enterprises supported and helped fund Pierce. They were fighting off a demand for public power and communications. The Portland Telegram, opposing the schools bill, charged that the Klan represented “the capitalization of religious prejudice and racial animosity by public service corporations as the means of sidetracking the public mind from economic issues. With the people foolishly fighting over religion and fanning the fires of fanaticism, they have forgotten all about the agitation against 8 cent street car fares, high telephone and other service rates and reduced wage scales, that before the advent of the Klan threatened the profits of big business.”

Klan candidate Pierce won the governorship handily, carrying twenty-eight of Oregon’s thirty-six counties. Unsurprisingly, the schools amendment also won, but less overwhelmingly — by a 12,000-vote majority out of 210,000 votes cast. Portland gave the amendment its biggest per capita support, with the largest majorities in precincts inhabited by middle-class and skilled working-class voters. These were also the voters who had been most supportive of Prohibition, the single tax, and a ban on vaccinations. As elsewhere, the economic top and bottom were less enthusiastic about banning Catholic schools.

Opponents of the schools amendment resorted to the courts, of course, and won. A federal district court ruled in early 1924 that the amendment violated the US Constitution and, perhaps more weightily, that the amendment deprived “parents of their rights, private school teachers of their livelihood and private schools of their property” without due process. (In other words, the decision rested on property rights rather than civil liberties principles.) Governor Pierce immediately announced an appeal to the US Supreme Court. “The people [will] not stand for any half-dozen judges telling them that an overwhelming majority cannot make their own law,” one newspaper editorialized. “We cannot understand why foreign minorities in America are ever listened to by our courts.” Former US senator George Chamberlain argued for Oregon at the Supreme Court, primarily on a states’ rights basis, but lost. In a unanimous decision the court found that the state violated the constitution, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment (which Oregon had not ratified), but also unduly interfered with parents’ rights.

While the amendment made its way through the courts, however, the state legislature moved to install further “Americanism” statutes. It enacted a requirement to teach the state constitution in every school, and to forbid wearing religious dress in the schools and to expel teachers who did so (some twenty nuns taught in the Oregon public schools). Prefiguring twenty-first-century battles over textbooks between historians and conservative politicians, the legislature also passed bills requiring the exclusive use of textbooks that “adequately stress the services rendered by the men who achieved our national independence, who established our form of constitutional government,” and disallowing any textbook that “speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic . . . or which belittles or undervalues their work.” The legislature eliminated the Columbus Day holiday because of its Catholic associations. After the Scopes trial, Oregon leaders, ever pragmatic, changed their strategy to campaign to have creationism taught alongside evolution.

The Klan also conducted a campaign to get non-Protestant teachers fired, a drive that soon extended to all government workers. A Klansman in La Grande volunteered to “talk to our school board” to make sure the school clerk was a “100% American.” The Klan complained that urban machine politicians were refusing to give jobs to white Protestants. “Former city manager Kratz had displeased Grand Dragon Gifford by refusing to cooperate with patronage appointments,” a Klavern member reported. Government jobs were plums, and for every Catholic fired, presumably a Protestant would be hired, so Klanspeople stood to gain materially from this campaign. It is impossible to know how many non-Protestants lost jobs to Klan efforts, but we have a few examples: for one, the Klan-led anti-Catholic frenzy resulted in attacks on faculty “Romanists” at the University of Oregon.

After defeat in the courts, figuring that prohibiting Catholic schools was no longer viable anywhere in the country, the Klan switched to promoting less wholesale bills in many other state legislatures, focusing on curricular requirements and control of teaching staff. These proposals aimed to require loyalty oaths of teachers; ban teachers from wearing religious clothing; mandate hiring only teachers trained in public schools; make a uniform textbook compulsory for parochial as well as public schools; set up a textbook commission to scrutinize all texts and license acceptable ones; require reading from the Protestant Bible each day, without comment; require schools to give pupils released time for religious study, and set aside one evening a week on which schools and churches would coordinate religious education; and require colleges and universities to grant credit for religious study in authorized churches.

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Linda Gordon, winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, is the author of The Second Coming of the KKK, Dorothea Lange and Impounded, and the coauthor of Feminism Unfinished. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University and lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.

Editor: Dana Snitzky