January 26, 1969: The Assassination of Edwin T. Pratt

Seattle civil rights leader Edwin T. Pratt (1930-1969)
Seattle civil rights leader Edwin T. Pratt

The surge of assassinations of leaders of the civil rights and black liberation movements in the late 1960s cast a wide enough net across the United States that it was bound to reach Seattle eventually. It did so on the date in focus here, when Edwin T. Pratt was shot to death in the doorway of his home on a snowy Sunday night.

Pratt (b. December 6, 1930) was the executive director of the Seattle Urban League, a member of the Central Area Civil Rights Organization, and a respected and effective leader in the struggle for integrated housing and education in Seattle. Born in Miami and educated at Atlanta University, where he earned a master’s degree in social work, Pratt joined the Urban League after graduation and served in Cleveland and Kansas City before his appointment in 1956 as Community Relations Secretary of the Seattle chapter. Housing discrimination and de facto school segregation were widespread when he arrived in Seattle. Through his leadership, the League’s staff here grew from five to 25, and he became the Seattle chapter’s executive director in 1961.

Pratt’s effectiveness as a devoted integrationist in a profoundly white city proved fatal when, opening the front door of his home in Shoreline around 9 p.m. to investigate a disturbance outside (reportedly the sound of a snowball hitting a window), he was shot directly in the face by one of two unknown persons, who then quickly fled the scene. Witnesses, including Pratt’s wife Bettye, reported seeing two men, both in their late teens or early twenties, fleeing into a nearby car, which immediately sped away. All assumed that a third person was involved as the driver of the getaway car. Due to the darkness, none of the witnesses was able to tell whether Pratt’s killers were white or black.

While a formal investigation was quickly launched by the King County Sheriff’s Department (KCSD) in collaboration with the FBI, and a reward of $10,500 was offered by local business leaders, after several months the crime remained unsolved. The reward was cancelled in January 1970 and the case was effectively abandoned until March 1994, when freelance journalist David Newman took an interest in the case and requested that the relevant police files be released under Washington state’s Public Records Act. Among the key people publicly supporting Newman’s request that year were the case’s previous KCSD investigators, along with Pratt’s daughter Miriam; King County Council members Larry Gossett, Larry Phillips, and Ron Sims; and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice.

King County officials intriguingly claimed exemption from the Act for police investigative files, and granted only a partial release of the files requested by Newman, while withholding several key documents, including interviews with suspects. After a long legal battle, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in November 1997 that the Pratt files should remain closed as long as the KCSD deemed it necessary.

Pratt’s level of stature within Seattle’s civil-rights activist community at the peak of his career was poignantly expressed on the night of his murder by Joseph L. McGavick, Chairman of the Washington State Board Against Discrimination. As quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the following morning, McGavick said:

“Ed Pratt was one of the most responsible and able people in the whole area of civil rights. He was one of the most highly principled people I’ve ever worked with. He took a lot of heat at times from both whites and blacks, but he always maintained a perfect balance, perspective, and sensitivity on human rights. He was an outstanding human being. I can’t possibly imagine a motive for such a terrible thing.”

Much intrigue beyond the scope of this article still surrounds the Pratt murder case. Many within Seattle’s black community — including and especially Pratt’s surviving activist colleagues — have long suspected police involvement with Pratt’s murder. By contrast, a December 1994 investigative report by the Seattle P-I revealed the possibility that the gunmen may have been hired by local construction contractors who — according to an acquaintance of one of the original suspects, interviewed in 1994 by the P-I — were angry at Pratt’s efforts to integrate blacks into the local construction workforce.

As of this writing the crime remains officially unsolved. Pratt’s legacy remains with us today physically and civically in the form of Edwin T. Pratt Park and the Pratt Fine Arts Center, both located in the Central District and named in his honor in the late 1970s.

Sources: “Pratt, Urban League Director, Shot, Killed,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 27, 1969, p. 1; “Pratt’s Death Shocks Civic Leaders, Friends,” Ibid., p. 3; “Assassin Killed Pratt, Says Sheriff,” The Seattle Times, January 27, 1969, p. A1; “Pratt Had Been Offered N.Y. Urban League Post,” Ibid., p. 2; Don Hannula, “Threats Were Part of Life For Pratt,” Ibid.; “Reward Urged In Pratt Death,” Ibid.; Michael J. Parks, “Murdered Man’s Post Filled,” Ibid.; “Edwin T. Pratt, a Martyr,” Ibid., p. 10; Larry McCarten, “Rewards Offered In Pratt Slaying,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 28, 1969, p. 1; “Add The Name of Ed . . .,” Ibid.; “A ‘New Thrust’: Last Speech Of Edwin Pratt,” Ibid., p. B; Hilda Bryant, “Jerome Page New Director,” Ibid.; “‘They’ve Got a Rifle’: A Warning — Too Late,” Ibid.; “Young To Attend Pratt Rites,” Ibid.; “Tributes Pour In for Edwin Pratt,” Ibid.; Don Hannula, “F.B.I. Officially Enters Probe of Pratt Slaying,” The Seattle Times, January 28, 1969, p. 6; “Clergymen of Three Faiths To Join In Pratt Rites,” Ibid.; Lawrence Schneider, “Ed Pratt’s Fight Against Racism, His Challenge to Seattle Recalled,” Ibid.; “City Urged to Work For Brotherhood,” Ibid.; Larry McCarten, “FBI Presses Search In Pratt Slaying,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 29, 1969, p. 1; “Reward Withdrawn,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 13, 1970, p. 3; David Newman, “The Death of Edwin Pratt: Seattle’s Unsolved Assassination,” The Stranger, August 16, 1994, p. 5; Dan Raley, “New Clues in 1969 Murder,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 1994, p. A1; “Remember Edwin Pratt?,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 7, 1999, p. B4.

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