100 Years of Activism

1956–69: Seattleites Stand Up for Racial Justice

The region’s civil rights movement relied not only on African Americans, but activists from many ethnic groups.

By Madeline Ostrander and Valerie Schloredt November 21, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Seattle Met

1956: Seattleites stand against segregation

From the early twentieth century, Seattle neighborhoods from Sand Point to Squire Park were segregated by racially restrictive covenants explicitly stating that homeowners would not sell property to nonwhite people. That sort of discrimination extended to a covert “No Jews” policy for Laurelhurst Beach Club until May 1956, when a well-publicized campaign convinced 500 members to attend the club’s annual meeting to change its bylaws. 

Erasing the color bar in real estate was a harder sell. The Civic Unity Committee, aided by other civil rights groups, ran a successful letter campaign in 1948 that convinced Capitol Hill homeowners not to renew their restrictive covenants. By 1956, the committee and the Central Seattle Community Association had convinced some residents of Madrona and Denny Blaine to begin selling homes to people of color. But it was not until 1968, following federal legislation, that an open housing ordinance finally made restrictive neighborhood covenants illegal in Seattle.

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A protester films the police at a Congress of Racial Equality–sponsored demonstration,
May 4, 1964.

1964: Racial justice demonstrators bring commerce to a halt

Imagine Seattle with no people of color in customer-facing roles at grocery and department stores. That was the state of employment segregation taken on in the early 1960s by Seattle civil rights activists, who made progress when they targeted downtown stores with a boycott aimed at the Christmas shopping season. The Seattle chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, displayed some imaginative nonviolent protest methods during the campaign. One was the “shop-in,” where activists wheeled full shopping carts up to the register to inquire whether a grocery store hired African Americans. When the answer was no, the CORE member would decline to shop in that store. Lines of carts piled up during peak shopping hours, a clear visual of the power of consumer boycott. 

1969: Construction workers smash discrimination

In 1969, 29-year-old black labor leader Tyree Scott and the members of the Central Contractors Association were done waiting for Washington’s building -trade unions to abide by federal affirmative action law. On September 23, they pushed a bulldozer and two trucks over a steep embankment into a pit at the University of Washington and threw rocks at construction equipment. Eventually, the CCA halted federal construction projects throughout the Seattle area. In 1970, a federal judge put in place a set of orders to reform the unions and counteract racial discrimination.

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Larry Gossett (far left) and Tyree Scott (pointing) outside the Federal Courthouse during a United Construction Workers Association vigil, June 15, 1972.

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