Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960-1970

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The Civil Rights Movement in the American West: Black Protest in Seattle, 1960-1970

Article excerpt

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. …

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