While Dr. King Dreamed, Seattleites Marched for Housing
Fifty years ago today, a quarter-million people gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the summer of 1963 marked a critical point in Seattle history as well, as young activists staged the city’s first sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
The issue that galvanized them was housing discrimination. And in a place that likes to think of itself as progressive, segregation was rampant.
The memories are a bit foggy for Kevin Guilmet, but once he gets talking, the stories spill out of him. He sits at his kitchen table with his mom, June, to talk history—civil rights history.
"I was just a baby. I was just a kid," Guilmet said.
Occupying City Council
He was 15 in July 1963. But he was old enough to take part in Seattle’s first civil rights sit-ins. He and 21 other young people, many of them teenagers, occupied city council chambers for four days. Even now, this many years later, he can still picture the initial confrontation.
"(I said,) 'I’m not leaving until you make me leave,'" Guilmet remembered. "And then I think the police captain came out and said, 'Well, then stay. Sit down, floors are hard. 'Bye.'"
Then on July 25, they were arrested. The students were frustrated that city leaders were dragging their feet on ending racial discrimination in housing.
Guilmet had first-hand experience. His dad is white. His mom is African-American. When they moved to Edmonds from New York in the mid-1950s, his dad decided it might be better for him to buy the house. He handed over the down payment.
`Oh My God'
"And then the family moved in. `Oh my God. Are my eyes deceiving me? That’s a black woman. It better be the maid. Oh no, it’s not the maid. It’s the wife. And those are the little mulatto children running around!"' Guilmet said. "They came to us in Edmonds with $50,000 that the neighborhood had put together to rebuy the house."
The Guilmets declined the neighbors’ offer. Because they were a mixed-race family, they managed to settle in an all-white enclave.
But the experience of Reverend Samuel McKinney was more common. He moved here in 1958 from the East Coast to take over as pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church. Then he went house-hunting with his wife.
`Are You Colored?'
"I would see a house and enquire about it. When people heard my voice, they’d ask me, 'Are you colored?'" McKinney said. "I’d ask them what difference did that make? Then they’d hang up."
Many properties had racial restrictions written into their deeds. The language sounds archaic. For example, "No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay, or any Asiatic Race."
James Gregory, professor of history at the University of Washington and the director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, says the racial restrictive covenants were enforceable in court.
"If I, as a property owner, wished to sell or rent to someone who was not white, I could be sued by all the neighbors for doing so, and I could lose my property," Gregory said.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court said they weren’t enforceable. But housing discrimination persisted outside the city’s Central District.
In 1963, activists led by Reverend McKinney pushed for an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing. Real estate interests testified against it.
"We believe it will have a broad tendency to depress rents with its consequent reduction in economic values of real estate," said Robert Gans, regional vice president of the Institute of Real Estate Management in 1963.
Nancy McGhee voiced the fears of many white homeowners.
Fears of White Homeowners
"This opening housing ordinance is an attempt to deprive all of us of one of our basic democratic rights, which is to dispose of our property both real and personal as we see fit," McGhee said at an October 25, 1963, hearing of the Seattle City Council.
McKinney says white homeowners were worried African-Americans would tear down what they had built up.
"We would not take care of the property and all like that, and we’d attract elements to the community that were considered undesirable," McKinney said.
The city council decided not to vote on it. Instead, they put the measure on the ballot. History Professor James Gregory says opponents called it a forced housing ordinance. One ad said, "Don’t let them kick away your rights."
Defeat at the Polls
Voters defeated the measure, two to one.
"White Seattle basically turned its back on the desires of communities of color for a fair shake in housing," Gregory said.
Not until 1968, three weeks after Dr. King was assassinated, did the city council vote to pass it. I asked Guilmet if he feels at all vindicated, whether it feels like an accomplishment to see laws prohibiting housing discrimination in place and restrictive covenants outlawed.
"No, no," Guilmet said. "Because this is what the Constitution of the United States guarantees for everybody, and I have to fight for it? and so when I do get it, thank you?"
If anything, Guilmet feels frustrated that the things he worked so hard for are now under attack. He points to states, such as North Carolina, passing restrictive voting laws.
"Certain factions in this country are saying, `Well, if you’re not going to vote for us, we’re just not going to let you vote," he said. "Really? We’re going to go back there and do that again? We already did that. I already did that."
Reverend McKinney says you can't lose hope.
"An old spiritual says, `Keep moving along like a little inchworm,'" McKinney said. "The struggle continues."
Even in housing in Seattle, that struggle continues. A study by the city in 2011 found illegal housing discrimination in more than half of the rental properties tested.