Michael K. Ross was a Seattle politician, construction worker, and an effective and outspoken leader in the fight for civil rights and economic justice. He was known for his demonstrations in support of minority construction workers and other civil rights issues, and for his runs for political office. He served one term in the state legislature, from 1971-1972.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, to Violet Phinisse Scott and Carl Ross, he was raised in Flint, Michigan. His parents divorced when he was quite young and he lived with his mother until he was 14. At that age he went to Los Angeles to live with his father. He remembered being surprised at the number of Japanese students in his high school who were not the "yellow Japs" he had learned about in the movies and on the radio during World War II. It was here also that he first learned about the concentration camps West Coast people of Japanese descent were sent to during the war. He termed his time in Los Angeles as a defining experience. He joined the Air Force in 1958, and signed up for four years, but because of the reduction in armed forces he was able to leave in 1960.
Recognizing the need for more education, he enrolled in the Community College in Flint and later in Washburn Community College in Topeka, Kansas. After hearing speakers on campus from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference regarding conditions in the South, he volunteered one summer to work there. Returning to school he felt disoriented and had a difficult time readjusting, so he went back to the South and worked in the Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Get Out the Vote Campaign."
Mr. Ross arrived in Seattle in 1967. He had met and fallen in love with another volunteer worker in the south, a young white woman. They were unable to marry in Virginia so they married in Washington, D.C. and headed west to Seattle. The union lasted only two years, however.
Civil Rights Activities
Finding racial barriers even in this Northwest city, he got passionately involved in civil rights projects immediately. He became vice president of the Seattle Central Area Registration Program and staff member of the Model Cities Program. After earlier befriending the Black Panthers, he later disavowed their policies. He did, however, drive the armed members to Rainier Beach High School to protect black students after there had been some interracial disturbances at the school.
During the summer of 1968, he stopped the beating of two white reporters at a rally at 23rd Avenue and E Cherry Street. The reporters were Tim Harvey and Hilaire Duefrene from the Helix, an underground newspaper. Ross stated at the time, "If people were going to start tearing up stuff it ought to be focused where the problem is -- not at 23rd and Cherry, but most likely at 4th and James or up the street at the Seafirst Building" (Ostrom and Moriwaki).
An active participant in the Congress for Racial Equality, Ross became president of the group in 1968, after the national organization decreed that membership be all black. John Cornethan had been president at the time this decree came down so Edward Russell became temporary chair. Not long after Ross became chair, the Seattle group dissolved.
Always outspoken and on the front line, he supported University of Washington Black Student Union demands to improve recruitment and treatment of minority students, among other demands, and in 1970 supported demonstrations to terminate athletic contracts between the University of Washington and Brigham Young University, whose sponsor, the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), discriminated against African Americans in its liturgy. Ross also sat in with Bernie Whitebear, Bob Bob Satiacum, and supporters at Fort Lawton (later Discovery Park) demanding a cultural center for American Indians and he joined Radical Women in their demonstrations.
Joining with Tyree Scott's United Construction Workers Association, Ross participated in a number of high visibility demonstrations at construction sites throughout the community, fighting for equal opportunity for minorities in the construction industry. Some of his many arrests for civil rights activities included the one in 1969, during a demonstration he led at Sea-Tac Airport to protest discrimination in construction employment there. More than 40 others were arrested with him.
In 1972, he along with Tyree Scott (1940-2003) and Todd Hawkins were arrested for trespassing on a Century Construction Company job site at Seattle Central Community College. A hung jury resulted in a mistrial and the three felt frustrated because they had intended to stay in jail and fast to highlight discrimination in the construction industry. Later, while in office as a state legislator, Ross received some criticism for these activities.
In 1974, he was arrested during a demonstration at a Rainier Valley sewer project job site.
In the late 1960s, Fred Dore and David Sprague, both members of the legislature from the 37th district, had had their homes bombed and both declined to run again. In 1970, Ross decided to run as a Republican for a seat in the legislature from the 37th district. Known as a somewhat radical civil rights worker he was questioned about running on the Republican ticket. His answer was that if people knew their history, they would know that the Republican party had once been a radical party that had passed the 13th and 14th amendment and freed the slaves. Ross ran against Marion King Smith (Mrs. Sam Smith) whom he referred to as a "nice lady" but unequipped for public office (Griffey). He won the election and served one term, from 1971-1972. Dino Rossi, who ran for governor in 2004, was his campaign manager.
As a freshman legislator he introduced a bill that would have authorized the Liquor Control Board to administer the growth, transport, and sale of marijuana. It would have legalized sales to 18-year-olds of one ounce every 24 hours. The bill failed but later came to haunt him in his run against George Benson for City Council in 1973.
He did manage to introduce the Betsy Ross resolution, which changed the order of the state and U.S. flag bearers. Instead of male bearers holding the U.S. flag in the legislature and female bearers holding the state flag as was the custom, he felt that to honor Betsy Ross, the female bearers should carry the U.S. flag. He was also instrumental in sponsoring or monitoring bills for the elderly, disabled veterans, student rights, and child-care services. His concern was always with the poor, the disadvantaged, and those who were discriminated against. While serving in the legislature, he was appointed by Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) to the State Law and Justice Planning Committee. His term of office ended when he was defeated by John Eng.
His final run for a political office was in 1985, when he was one of seven candidates running for the 5th District seat on the King County Council to replace Ruby Chow. He was defeated by Ron Sims by more than a 3-1 margin.
Michael Ross had a lengthy employment record. In 1968, he was Youth Coordinator for Model Cities Program, but was fired by Mayor Dorm Braman (1901-1980) because of his remarks to Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll (1906-2003) during a meeting with the United Black Front. Ross accused Carroll of racism and suggested that he hire someone on his staff to protect himself.
In 1972, he became chief investigator for the public defender's office but was replaced by Jackie Rye because of budget cuts. He resigned his position as Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity to run for City Council in 1973. He quit a job with the Federal Energy Administration in 1975, to become the Executive Director of the United Inner City Development Foundation, an organization committed to inner city business development
He was president and project manager of the Management Institute for Training the Underdeveloped, a Model Cities and Urban League supported program that built low cost townhouses in the Central Area. Later he and Norwood Brooks started N. J. Brooks Construction Company. The company was awarded contracts with the Veteran Administration and Seattle Public Schools. One of Ross's last jobs was with the Seattle Vocational Institute.
Michael Ross died on August 21, 2007. After his death both the City of Seattle and the Metropolitan King County Council recognized his contributions to Seattle. They noted his passion for civil rights, his leadership and his courage in "taking it to the street" in the movement led by the United Construction Workers Association.
The proclamation by the City Council was signed by its nine members and acknowledged that his death is a loss to Seattle and to all who cherish freedom and justice. King County Council's Recognition was signed by Larry Gossett, Councilmember.
Michael Ross is survived by his sons, Michael Kay Ross, Adam Kent Ross, and Michael Chavez Ross.