History

July 1, 1963: Seattle’s First Civil Rights Sit-In

Outside Seattle City Hall, July 1, 1963
Bruce McKim / The Seattle Times
Outside Seattle City Hall, July 1, 1963
Bruce McKim / The Seattle Times

The “Seattle Way” is nothing new. In fact, our city government’s infamous penchant for processing potential legislation towards a slow, agonizing death dates back at least to the early 1960s, the prime time of the civil rights era. Then, people of color here, inspired by activists in the Deep South, began to pressure Seattle City Hall to outlaw racial discrimination in housing. In response to that grassroots pressure, in July 1962 Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton appointed a Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, which concluded later that year that “a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin is an essential tool for the work of a city commission on human relations.” The committee also recommended the creation of a 12-member human rights commission to carry out that mission.

In keeping with the “Seattle Way,” Clinton and the Seattle City Council naturally delayed action on the advisory committee’s recommendations for nearly a year. It was on the date in focus here that, to protest the city’s inaction and to demand “open housing” in Seattle, the Rev. Mance Jackson of the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney of the Mount Zion Baptist Church organized a march on City Hall, beginning in the Central Area. That morning, roughly 400 marchers descended upon the Fifth Avenue plaza of the Seattle Municipal Building, where a city council meeting on open housing was scheduled for that day. There, a group of high-school and college-age protesters circulated a flyer, which read in part:

“As citizens of Seattle and members of the Central District Youth Club, we feel humiliated by the slow process of the City of Seattle to adopt open housing. We are past the stages of patience, we also are past the stage of committees and subcommittees. We want open housing today.”

Inside the city council chambers, some 300 protesters filled the meeting, in a room with a seating capacity of 175. Mayor Clinton spoke in favor of the human rights commission, while several clergymen involved with the march expressed their own impatience with the lack of progress on the open housing issue.

Meanwhile, before the meeting, at about 1:30 p.m., about 35 members of the Central District Youth Club — which included both African-American and white youth — proceeded to the mayor’s office with the intention of occupying it as a form of protest in support of open housing in Seattle. The sit-in lasted 24 hours and ended peacefully, and it succeeded in convincing the city council to commit to the creation of a human rights commission, with the mandate of drafting an open housing ordinance within 90 days.

Some of the protest leaders, including the Rev. Jackson and the Rev. McKinney, were still critical that the council did not directly move towards the creation of an ordinance. Another local clergyman, the Rev. Dr. John H. Adams, minister of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, said tersely at one point, “You cannot put out the forest fire of racial tension with the hot dry air that comes from committee rooms.”

Seattle voters would defeat the open housing ordinance in March 1964. After four more years of “Seattle Way” shenanigans, the ordinance was finally passed directly by the city council in April 1968.

Sources: “Sit-In Begins In Mayor’s Office Here,” The Seattle Times, July 1, 1963, p. 1; Dan Coughlin, “City Implies OK For Open Housing Law After Sit-In,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 2, 1963, p. 1; “Youths End Sit-In At Mayor’s Office,” The Seattle Times, July 2, 1963, p. 1; Lane Smith, “City Council Stalls on Housing, Negroes Charge,” The Seattle Times, July 2, 1963, p. 6; Douglas Willix, “Council Influenced by Spokesmen for Open-Housing Ordinance,” The Seattle Times, July 2, 1963, p. 6; Dan Coughlin, “Protesters To ‘Go Along’ On Seattle Rights Plan,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 1963, p. 5; Charles Dunsire, “Open Housing Sleepy Sit-Ins End 24-Hour Visit To Mayor,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 3, 1963, p. 5; “King AM-FM Cover City Council Hearings On Minority Housing,” The Facts, July 12, 1963, p. 1; “Mayor Appoints Minister to Commission — Housing Ordinance Top Priority,” The Facts, July 19, 1963, p. 1.