The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960-1970
Taylor, Quintard, The Journal of Negro History
Americans remain fascinated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Perhaps it is because the movement seemed the quintessential contest between progressive forces (integrationists) and reactionary elements (segregationists) with progressives ultimately in triumph. Perhaps our curiosity stems from our knowledge that the legislative triumphs of this period were matched only by the accomplishments of the New Deal era. And perhaps much of the interest can be attributed to the "regular cycles of nostalgia" that cause Americans to fondly recall the historical era of their youth and pronounce it the most significant time in the nation's history.(1)
Whatever the reason, our fascination for the era encompasses a search for its proper place in the nation's history. The first Civil Rights Movement historians in the 1970s portrayed the era as one dominated by a powerful and ultimately successful national political coalition led by heroic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. that secured new laws insuring equality and opportunity. By the 1980s a second generation of historians sought to locate both the origins and success of the Civil Rights Movement in local initiatives from grass-roots organizations in the South. For them, the Movement could best be understood not from the vantage point of Martin Luther King confronting die-hard segregationists in Albany, Georgia, or President John F. Kennedy urging passage of a civil rights bill in Washington, but from the view of indigenous black leaders in McComb County, Mississippi, or Haywood County, Tennessee, and from civil rights volunteers such as the SNCC organizers who assisted their efforts.(2)
I suggest a third alternative. The Movement should be viewed as a national transformation, an energizing of small and large African American communities throughout the country, inspired by national goals and leadership, but which pursued distinctly local agendas. For these people the Movement was not simply a television report of fire hoses and police dogs set on demonstrators in distant Birmingham. It was instead the campaign to end job bias or school segregation in their local communities as an integral part of the national effort to eradicate racism, empower African Americans, and achieve the full and final democratization of the United States.
An examination of the civil rights movement in Seattle - the western city farthest removed from the Deep South - offers opportunities for examining that alternative and refashioning our views on the transformation of racial politics in the United States in the 1960s. The Seattle Movement, an entirely local effort mounted by African Americans and sympathetic whites and Asians, would confront with direct action tactics the three major grievances of the black community - job discrimination, housing bias, and de facto school segregation.(3)
Historically black Seattleites had a number of rights routinely denied African Americans elsewhere in the United States, and particularly in the South. The city's black male citizens had voted since 1867 and black women received the right to vote in 1883. A public accommodations law passed in 1890 guaranteed equal access to restaurants, hotels, and public transportation. Moreover, black Seattlites never lived in fear of collective white violence which so often underlay race relations in Southern communities. As one observer of the period remarked, "African Americans who migrated to Seattle realized the city was the end of the line both socially and geographically. There was no better place to go."(4)
Black Seattle was unquestionably affected by the massive Southern civil disobedience campaigns in the early 1960s. The city's African Americans gave moral and financial support to civil rights activists in that region. Seattle blacks, however recognized that the racism they experienced in the Pacific Northwest differed only in intensity from that faced by African Americans in the South. But Seattle's liberal image, while not entirely a facade, nevertheless masked deep-seated racial fears and anxieties. While both blacks and whites agreed the racial climate was less hostile than in comparable cities its size, the African American community nonetheless faced a wall of vast indifference. "The deepest of our racial sins," declared Roger Sale in his history of Seattle, "is ignorance." "In the South, where whites and blacks have lived, however badly, for generations, that ignorance turned out to be shallower than in many parts of the North; in Seattle the ignorance runs deep."(5)
White Seattleites had a particular propensity for isolating themselves from any knowledge or concern about the local black population and its plight. Residents in West Seattle, Magnolia or other predominately white neighborhoods might acknowledge in principle the existence of some racial grievance by blacks, and publicly applaud the efforts of Martin Luther King in the South, but most felt justified in ignoring local race issues. "For them," according to one 1965 observer, "the Central District [Seattle's black community] might just as well be a foreign country, which they occasionally pass through in their automobiles, peering with mild distaste at 'them' and their funny way of life."(6)
Racism impacted on the black community in interrelated ways. Much of the poverty of the Central District, the home of the vast majority of black Seattleites, rested on a foundation of job discrimination. Seattle blacks, particularly the unskilled, made surprisingly little progress during the 1960s despite the city's economic boom stimulated by the rapid growth of the Boeing Aircraft Company. In October, 1967, for example, black unemployment stood at ten percent, triple the rate for the entire city, and a full percentage point above the black unemployment rate nationally, even though 148,000 new jobs had been created in the past 18 months. Moreover, an ominous sign of future trends both locally and nationally appeared in a 1968 Urban League study of unemployed black males. Among those under 24, the jobless rate had reached an all-time high of 25%.(7)
Furthermore, the growth of the African American population was concentrated in residential areas where the housing was rapidly deteriorating. Although African Americans comprised less than five percent of the city's 1960 population, nearly 80% of the city's 26,901 black residents lived in four of the city's 110 census tracts. Seattle remained less segregated than most American cities in 1965. Yet the number of all-black blocks in the Central District increased as African Americans filled multiple-residence structures or single family houses, many of which dated back to the beginning of the century. Residential segregation, in turn, generated de facto school segregation. In 1957 the Seattle School Board took its first census of enrollment by race and discovered that only five percent of its 91,782 students were black. That same census, however, showed that 81% of those blacks were concentrated in nine of the city's 112 schools.(8)
If the statistics sounded depressingly similar to those cited in the nation's largest ghettos, there was a difference. Seattle was not Detroit, Newark, or Watts, which hurt as much as it helped. Because of its relatively small black population, the Central District had few blocks which reflected the physical deterioration so common in the racially exclusive slums of eastern cities, prompting most whites and some blacks to argue that "there was no racial problem" in the city, while ignoring less obvious signs of decay and discontent. But the small population guaranteed an equally small …
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Publication information: Article title: The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960-1970. Contributors: Taylor, Quintard - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Negro History. Volume: 80. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1995. Page number: 1+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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