June 15, 1963: Seattle’s First Civil Rights March

The Rev. Mance Jackson (center, next to police officer) leading demonstrators in downtown Seattle Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Rev. Mance Jackson (center, next to police officer) leading demonstrators
in downtown Seattle
Photo: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In the summer of 1963, Seattle may have still been a small, sleepy city in some respects, but in its response to the civil rights movement then reaching full bloom in the Deep South, Seattle’s black community showed exceptional civic leadership among the cities west of the Mississippi. On the date in focus here, Seattle witnessed the first of many bold actions that would echo the events then unfolding in Alabama and elsewhere.

On that Saturday morning, several of Seattle’s leading black clergymen, including the Rev. Mance Jackson, led a march of some 1,000 persons, both black and white, from the Central Area to Westlake Mall. The march, which began at Mt. Zion Baptist Church at 19th Avenue and Madison Street, was organized by local officers of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), partly in response to the murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP. Evers was shot to death in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, earlier that week, and several protests along the East Coast had already ensued as the Seattle marchers assembled at Mt. Zion.

At the church, a spirited rally preceded the march, a collection of $634.02 was taken for Evers’s family, and a minute of silent prayer was offered for Evers. The march then proceeded through the Central Area, converging down Pine Street towards downtown for a scheduled noon rally at Westlake Mall.

While partly instigated by the murder of Evers, the demonstration mainly concerned the discrimination in housing, education, and employment then rampant in Seattle, as well as the city government’s failure to adequately address that discrimination. At the time, local civil rights activists had been pursuing the creation and passage of an open housing ordinance in Seattle, so far to no avail. At Westlake, the Rev. Jackson, pastor of Seattle’s Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, gave a rousing speech lamenting the state of race relations in Seattle:

“We are trying to point out that Seattle is no different from any other American city…. Some believe Seattle is different … that Negroes are better treated … We have been complacent and satisfied in the great Northwest. We came to what we thought was a land of promise and we have been content to accept discrimination. The hour is upon us when we must realize [that] freedom from oppression is reserved for those who are willing to fight for it. The time is now — or never.”

Concluding his speech, Jackson called upon the demonstrators to continue demonstrating in the coming weeks. He called upon men to stage protests on Mondays, women on Tuesdays, and young people on Wednesdays and Fridays.

“Saturday,” he concluded, “is everybody’s day.”

Other black leaders from Seattle also spoke at the rally, including the Rev. John Adams, pastor of the First African Methodist Church. The Rev. Adams referred to a timetable recently proposed by Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton for creating a human rights commission and a real estate listing service to address racial discrimination in the city. Many black leaders felt the timetable was not urgent enough, and the Rev. Adams declared:

“We will let the mayor know we don’t approve his timetable…. We don’t want any more study groups — we want some action, now!”

Reginald Alleyne, local president of CORE, vowed that CORE would “picket, boycott, and sit-in real estate offices that discriminate in this city.” He also said that CORE was prepared to pursue economic sanctions against any local businesses found guilty of job discrimination.

Mayor Clinton, while not speaking at the rally, announced to the press during the rally that he would recommend the following Monday that the city council establish a city human rights commission and housing listing service during his annual State of the City address at that week’s council meeting. On that day, a rally of some 400 persons in support of the proposed open housing ordinance was held outside the Seattle Municipal Building one hour before the council meeting. Clinton spoke at that rally to light applause, outlining his proposal for the creation of a 12-member human rights commission with an annual budget of $30,000. Stronger applause was reserved for the Rev. Jackson, who declared:

“We think we have heard you, Mr. Mayor, and we think there is no intention of our city government to do anything.”

The following year, an open housing ordinance was presented to Seattle voters as a referendum. It was defeated, mainly due to opposition from property owners who framed it as an attack on property rights. It was not until April 1968 that a Seattle open housing ordinance was finally adopted, this time by a vote of the Seattle City Council.

Sources: “700 March in Racial-Equality Protest,” The Seattle Times, June 15, 1963, p. 1; Charles Dunsire, “Negro Leaders Here Launch Fight For Equality,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 16, 1963, p. 12; “400 Negroes, Whites Rally at City Hall,” The Seattle Times, June 17, 1963, p. A; Dan Coughlin, “Clinton Asks $30,000 To Start Rights Commission,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 18, 1963, p. 1; Joan Singler, Jean Durning, Bettylou Valentine, and Maid Adams, “Seattle in Black and White: The Congress of Racial Equality and the Fight for Equal Opportunity” (University of Washington Press, 2011).