The 1968 Issue: It was a chaotic year in Seattle, as it was in the rest of the country. Here, it was a year of sit-ins, protest marches and a growing need for activism.
“ON A DREARY, rainy afternoon in October, nineteen-sixtyeight, word reached my ears that Butch Armstead was dead. Shot in the back in the tradition of other freedom fighters who chose to oppose the established order in this decadent land, Butch’s life could have easily been spared.”
That was how an unsigned editorial in the newsletter for the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party described the fatal shooting of African-American 17-year-old Welton “Butch” Armstead by a white Seattle police officer on Oct. 5, 1968, following an altercation between Armstead, who was armed with a rifle, and police as they searched for suspects in a car theft. Armstead’s mother and sister were arrested for interfering with officers during the incident. The shooting was ruled justifiable by an inquest jury.
The broad outline of the scenario spelled out in that editorial, written by a Black Panther chapter that had formed only months before in response to another racial injustice, could have been written today, in an era when footage of police altercations with African Americans, armed and unarmed, acting suspiciously or doing nothing at all, seems to be a weekly occurrence.
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The year 1968 was a crucible that delivered continuous shocks to the system, around the world, across the country and here in Seattle, on issues of race and politics, poverty and wealth, and war and peace. But what had it wrought?
Horrific images of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a series of attacks launched on Jan. 31 by North Vietnamese forces to break the will of the South Vietnamese and fray the bond between Saigon and Washington, helped turn Americans against that conflict and fuel a burgeoning anti-war movement.
Protests against government and military elites led by students; workers; and, in some cases, militant groups rocked cities from Paris and Prague to Mexico City and Kingston.
In the United States, the civil-rights movement reached a turning point with student walkouts and sit-ins to protest inequality in education, and the Black Power movement rose to greater prominence as its activists protested police brutality in African-American communities and promoted economic uplift.
Nineteen-sixty-eight was relentless.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 in Memphis led to riots in cities across the country.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic presidential primary in California. He died on June 6.
The Democratic convention itself, held later that summer in Chicago, turned chaotic inside in the hall among delegates, and outside on the streets between the Chicago police force and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators.
At the Mexico City Summer Olympics, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised Black Power fists on the podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200-meter race, drawing fierce backlash.
And there was unrest closer to home. Seattle also would gain national attention that turbulent year.
ON MARCH 28, Franklin High School Principal Loren Ralph suspended two black students who’d gotten into a hallway fight with a white student, but the white student wasn’t reprimanded. The uneven treatment sparked outrage, and one of the suspended black students, Trolice Flavors, contacted his mentor, Carl Miller, at the University of Washington’s newly formed Black Student Union, to intervene.
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Miller joined fellow BSU members Aaron Dixon and Larry Gossett in trying to negotiate an agreement to reinstate the suspended students, but it didn’t work. Franklin students were enraged, but the BSU encouraged them to protest peacefully. What resulted was the first student sit-in held in Seattle.
The next day, more than 100 Franklin students and non-Franklin demonstrators occupied the administration offices and then the auditorium, demanding action on racial discrimination at the school.
While the protest ended peacefully, five people, including Flavors, Miller, Dixon and Gossett, were arrested for their participation on April 4.
Later that same day, the world learned that King was dead. In Seattle, an estimated 10,000 people marched to Seattle Center on April 7 to hold vigil and remember the slain civil-rights leader.
That summer, on July 1, a judge sentenced Miller, Dixon and Gossett to six months in jail for unlawful assembly. Hundreds of young African Americans gathered at Garfield High School in the predominantly African-American Central District to protest, but the demonstration devolved into two days of rock-throwing at motorists and other attacks before members of the community were able to calm the situation.
Leaders are born at times like these. Gossett helped lead a BSU sit-in at the office of the UW’s president that year to pressure the university to recruit more minority and poor-white students, among other demands. He’s now a King Country Councilman, working out of an office in the same building where he was jailed for the Franklin sit-in.
Dixon, his brothers Elmer and Michael, and other activists founded a Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 that won accolades from the national organization for its focus on humanitarian programs in the city’s African-American community. The group marked its 50th anniversary this spring with a weekend of workshops and speeches to celebrate its groundbreaking work.
Times like these show us who we really are. They reveal our capacity to confront our most pressing ills but also our stubborn inability to fully solve or even agree, across racial and cultural lines, on their roots.
The fear of black people as some unknowable and dangerous force that must be checked before it does harm, for instance, underpins police-involved shootings today as much as in 1968 or 1918, and leads to unfair treatment of black students in classrooms in 2018 just as it did when those fateful suspensions were handed down at Franklin High School five decades ago.
BY THE TIME King was assassinated, he’d widened his focus to include advocacy for the poor to address extreme income inequality among people of color as well as low-income whites. Today, nationwide and here in booming Seattle, solutions to close those gaps are hard to come by.
Back then, the idea of fair housing practices for African Americans was a novelty in America and in the Seattle area. Today, access to affordable housing for African Americans and other demographic groups struggling with the cost of living in the Seattle area is a rarity.
We’re still fighting over who belongs in our communities and how to accommodate those who are most at risk of being pushed out.
Housing discrimination, in homebuying as well as at rental properties, was effectively legal in Seattle until 1968, but that changed, at least on paper, on April 19 of that year. After years of trying, the Seattle City Council passed the Open Housing Ordinance, prohibiting unfair practices in the “sale and offering for sale and in the rental and offering for rent and in the financing of housing accommodations.”
Not everyone was on board in the lead-up to the vote.
In a letter to the council dated April 11, 1968, a week after King was assassinated, the Apartment Operators Association of Seattle urged the city to abandon plans to enact what it called a “Forced Housing Ordinance” because there was already new federal fair-housing legislation passed that same day in the wake of King’s murder. They claimed that a survey of white tenants in members’ Central Seattle buildings suggested they’d flee to suburbs without such municipal ordinances, rather than face the prospect of living next door to nonwhites.
The association made a forceful, if tone-deaf, economic case too, arguing that the ordinance would depress new construction in neighborhoods that needed housing.
“The construction of new apartment buildings and new single residences will likewise be divested in the majority of cases to the suburbs,” they wrote, adding, “Those who have propounded integrated housing have failed to convince the residents in our apartment buildings that they should remain when the buildings become integrated. When these citizens leave our city, a great disservice will be done to those who hope to save the Central City rather than have it become one so-called enormous Negro ghetto.”
The lack of group introspection on the part of the operators association is stunning.
There was a good reason for African Americans in central Seattle needing local protection in the form of an open-housing ordinance: They weren’t wanted, or allowed to rent or own homes, in virtually the rest of the city. As the city’s black population swelled in the decades after World War II, they had already been clustered into the CD by racially restrictive neighborhood housing covenants and other practices.
Things looked promising when Liberty Bank opened at the intersection of 24th Avenue and East Union Street that spring. Its aim was to give minorities, primarily African Americans, greater access to financial services and loans.
In the 50 intervening years, though, the bank closed, and the Central District went from being roughly 70 percent black to about 20 percent black today due to gentrification and also the selling of black-owned homes that had been in families for decades.
The challenge today is to preserve what’s left of the neighborhood’s African-American culture, and the economic viability of African Americans themselves, who were hit hard by the subprime mortgage crisis a decade ago and by questionable foreclosure practices in the aftermath, a generation after those covenants, along with race-based “redlining” by lending and real estate institutions, forced African Americans into one section of town.
“BUTCH ARMSTEAD came to the Black Panther Party full of zeal and hope and life,” that editorial in 1968 said. “He was a beautiful young brother, tall, thin … He performed and reasoned with the experience of a 30 year old man.”
The editorial portrays Armstead as full of promise in a community aching over promises broken or never made.
“It isn’t difficult to determine what would inspire a seventeen year old Black man to rise up against a sea of troubles imposed upon him and his people since his entry on this decadent American soil,” the editorial said. “Freedom, decent housing, education, an end to the robbery by the capitalist and the genocide and total exploitation of a race of people are surely some of the motivating factors.”
Those words are no less heartbreaking and searing today. And even if they ring with the particular anguish of a fed-up people who had lived through a decade of assassinations of black leaders, riots and resistance to both racial integration and economic uplift, they echo in our current discourse on disproportionality in school discipline, economic displacement and the treatment of people of color by law enforcement.
That year was so full of anger, grief and activism that it seems to stand alone as a capsule moment in our nation’s history — and in the story of Seattle.
But when it comes to the fight for justice, 1968 has repeated itself every year since.