Injustices that caused strong reactions to the death of MLK 50 years ago today may look different but, sadly, are still present in our community.
Seattle was wrestling with racial inequality 50 years ago when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And Seattle is still haunted by inequality as it commemorates this anniversary.
As in the rest of the country, improvement, setbacks and unfinished work define the struggle in our community. We have not crested the mountaintop, but neither are we done marching toward a better society.
I’ve been looking back at the pages of The Seattle Times from the days after the assassination to gauge the reactions here. As was true across the country, those reactions reveal a mix of emotions that had built up over years and of expectations raised by the many successes of the civil-rights movement.
More than 9,000 people marched to Memorial Stadium for a service April 8, 1968, to honor King’s work, four days after his death. Churches held memorials, and Seattle Public Schools let students out early the day after the April 4 assassination.
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Some angry, young people threw fire bombs, broke windows and threw rocks at cars, but there was no mass violence here on the scale of what happened in many other cities. One headline about the national situation in the April 10 edition of The Times read: “Violence Spreads to 123 Cities; 38 Dead.”
Seattle has always had a relatively small black population, but it has not been immune to racism. I moved here in 1981 from Oakland, California, a city with a large and politically active black population, and the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. It took a while to see where the fault lines lay in Seattle and to learn about the history behind them.
The city is named for an American Indian leader whose people new residents displaced. Before 1940, Asian Americans with Chinese, Japanese or Filipino roots constituted the largest minority group in Seattle. In 1886, a white mob rioted against the presence of Chinese immigrants and ran most of them out of town.
Black people came in small numbers early, but the population grew rapidly between 1940 and 1960, becoming the city’s largest minority group. They were drawn at first by wartime jobs and better conditions than the South offered. Still, segregation kept black Americans concentrated in a few neighborhoods, and many jobs were closed to black residents. Access to quality education for black people was an issue from the start, and so was treatment by the police department.
Seattle may be progressive as American cities go, but in March 1964, voters here turned down an open-housing ordinance by more than 2 to 1 (115,627 to 54,445). The vote came after years of work by advocates to make discrimination in housing illegal.
In his book “Pressing On,” John C. Hughes, chief historian for Legacy Washington in the office of the secretary of state, wrote that “Blatant redlining confined most of the city’s 27,000 African Americans to the Central Area; covenants kept Jews out of upscale neighborhoods.” On April 10, 1968, Congress passed the national Fair Housing Act, and on April 19, the Seattle City Council directly passed a fair-housing ordinance.
On March 28, 1968, just a week before MLK’s assassination, Franklin High School suspended two black students who fought with a white student. A demonstration against the suspensions marked the first large expression of the Black Power movement in Seattle. Members of the new University of Washington Black Student Union helped organize the protest and were among five people arrested on April 4, hours before the shooting in Memphis.
Among the arrested UW students was Larry Gossett, now a Metropolitan King County Council member. The arrests led to the founding of a Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, headed by Aaron Dixon, another of the students. The school district reassigned Franklin’s vice principal.
The arrests at Franklin also highlighted the longstanding poor relationship between police and Central Area residents.
On April 14 that year, The Seattle Times devoted a full page to a report on tensions between Central Area residents and the Seattle Police Department. Lane Smith, then assistant city editor, wrote, “In every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964, abrasive relations between police and Negroes and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, tension and, ultimately, disorder.”
That was a key conclusion, he said, of the Kerner Commission report on the causes of civil disorder, delivered to President Lyndon Johnson and the nation in 1968. Police are not solely to blame, the report said, but they are the face of authority, symbols of “white power, white racism and white repression.” In one story on the page, several black students spoke about the police and inequality, more generally. Another story focused on the police community-relations unit and its efforts to change perceptions of the department.
The Times even asked then-Superior Court Judge (and future state Supreme Court Justice) Charles Z. Smith to comment on what the reporters found because he was “a Negro respected by police and private citizens.” He noted the community-relations unit was a good start, but that much more needed to be done, and that it was important to listen to what young people were saying. “We are beginning now to fully recognize that in any community we must listen to the voices of all the people we purport to represent.”
A boy told a reporter, “The whole question — the whole thing we’re talking about — is whether there will ever be a sincere equality; an equality that does not have to be enforced by a law. An equality that is portrayed through the individual spirit of each man. It’s either that, man, or there won’t be anybody around here to apply oppression, or to be oppressed.”
Steps forward, then back
So far, the kind of equality King worked toward has eluded us.
Black Americans made great strides in the years after his death. High-school graduation rates and college attendance soared. Opportunities opened in nearly every realm of American life, and black people rushed to take advantage. But we also saw backlash against the changes, against school integration and affirmative action and every tool government employed to tear at old barriers. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and legislatures in several states enacted laws that don’t mention race, but have a disparate and negative impact on people of color.
These days, income inequality is at record levels. Young people protest against police shootings of unarmed black people. Women demand an end to sexual harassment and abuse. Fights over immigration are heated. Politics looks like war. We are mired in actual wars overseas, as we were in 1968.
The unemployment rate for black Americans is twice the rate for white citizens.
And Seattle still hasn’t figured out how to give all of its children the education they deserve.
A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling helped put an end to the Seattle public-school system’s attempt at increasing integration, and schools have become segregated again, like the neighborhoods they sit in. And the Seattle school district has other problems, including its disproportionate punishment of black students.
Activists, meanwhile, stage protests against the building of a new King County juvenile jail and against continuing disparities in the way people of color are treated at all levels of the justice system.
Black people are still arrested at disproportionate rates for drug infractions. Marijuana is legal now, and many thought that would help with that one disparity. Well, arrests went down, but black folks (who use marijuana at about the same rate as white people) are still much more likely to be arrested. This, while white businessmen thrive selling weed in the city’s now gentrified Central Area.
Seattle’s prosperity has driven many black families to communities in South King County, changing the face of the metro area.
Instead of the Panthers, we have the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
And the struggle continues.