The Seattle Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality was a powerful force in the city’s civil rights movement during the 1960s, spearheading efforts to bring to public attention the inequalities black people suffered in housing, employment, and education. In 1960, Seattle's black population was mostly confined to housing in the Central Area, not seen as sales clerks in grocery or department stores, and studying in segregated public schools. The organization was successful in opening job opportunities and in calling attention to other forms of discrimination.
Origins of the Organization
The National Congress on Racial Equality was founded by James Farmer (1886-1961) and a group of Chicago pacifists in 1942. It took almost 20 years to jolt the group into decisive action. This was finally spurred by the non-violent action of students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who held a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter.
CORE rushed to assist them because of their non-violent posture, one that the organization had espoused. The publicity surrounding this action gave momentum to the group and led to the Freedom Rides to Southern cities, challenging their right to segregate after the Supreme Court prohibited it in interstate travel. On May 4, 1961, the first Freedom Riders, both black and white, boarded Grayhound and Trailways buses and rode into the segregated South with the intention of testing whether bus stations and facilities were in compliance with the law. (They were not.) There was considerable violence with one bus being burned, arrests, protests, and press conferences by the Freedom Riders. After six months the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed discriminatory seating practices on interstate bus transit and ordered the removal of "whites only" signs from interstate bus terminals.
Formation of the Seattle Chapter
Although an attempt was made in 1957 by Don Matson, Walt Hundley (1929-2002), Ivan King and Ray Williams to form a CORE chapter in Seattle, it was not until June 1961 that the chapter was formed albeit without official recognition from the National CORE. The television accounts of the beatings, assaults, and other horrors dealt the Freedom Riders in southern states caused a groundswell of reaction in Seattle. Money was raised to send a white Seattleite, Ray Allen Cooper, to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider, where he was arrested. Many other dedicated people joined the organization, and by February 1962 the Seattle group was recognized as an official chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Within a year the interracial membership grew to almost 100 even though a rigorous process of orientation and training was involved. A person was required to go through training in non-violence and commit to CORE’s "Rules for Action," which mandated that dignity and respectability be maintained. It was also emphasized that before action was taken, there had to be an investigation to determine if there was in fact racial injustice occurring. If discrimination was found, there was to be an attempt at negotiation, and non-violent demonstrations would follow only if negotiations failed.
Unlocking the Doors to Jobs
The young group, anxious to make changes in Seattle, was faced with choices of how to proceed. There were many areas of discrimination -- in housing, employment, schools, and police treatment -- but CORE decided to zero in on employment. The arena was narrowed to banks, department stores, and grocery-store chains where black people did business. Surveys were made to determine the number of black people employed in these banks and businesses.
Grocery chains had the worst record and were targeted first. On September 20, 1961, negotiations began with Safeway, but had no success. Leaflets were distributed stating "Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work." Boycotting and picketing followed. Within 16 months Safeway had 28 black employees, with many working outside the Central Area, and the "Selective Buying Campaign" was successful in other grocery chains as well.
A&P and Tradewell, however, did not fulfill their promises of employment of blacks. This led to the very successful and disruptive A&P "shop-ins." CORE shoppers would fill grocery baskets with small items requiring time consuming reshelving. After the clerk rang up everything in the cart, the shopper would announce that they did not want the items and would not shop at the store again because of its discriminatory hiring practices. A&P finally hired blacks in each of its 15 stores. The same tactics by CORE shoppers at Tradewell stores in the Laurelhurst and Wedgwood neighborhoods resulted in the hiring of 10 blacks.
By 1964 CORE had 30 trained members negotiating with all the supermarket chains, major department stores, bakeries, Carnation and Darigold Dairies, and Washington Natural Gas. Others firms contacted were Bartell Drug Stores, Clark’s Restaurant, Crown Zellerbach Paper Company, Fisher Flour Mills, Greyhound Bus Line, Manning’s Coffee Cafes, Pay 'n Save Corporation, Rainier Brewery, taxi cab companies, and Western International (later called Westin Hotels).
Downtown Stores Are Targeted
Data was collected on downtown department store employment and CORE began negotiations with them, starting with J.C. Penney at 2nd Avenue and Pike Street and Rhodes Department Store at 2nd Avenue and Union Street. Rather than withstand subjection to boycotts and pickets, the two stores began hiring on a nondiscriminatory basis.
The Bon Marche (now Macy’s) had only three full-time and two part-time black salespeople out of a total of more than 400, but negotiations with management were not fruitful. A Freedom March was scheduled to be held on June 15, 1963, in downtown Seattle to protest discriminatory hiring, especially at the Bon. Upon hearing of this impending event, Bon Marche management hired 11 full time-black salespeople, five black office workers, and five warehouse workers, all within one week.
Because of the incremental progress being made in employment in certain targeted businesses in downtown Seattle, CORE members decided to undertake a new employment project that would include all of downtown and be called "Drive for Equal Employment in Downtown Seattle." Research by Dr. Charles Valentine (1929-1990) and CORE volunteers produced a report which indicated that out of 63,000 jobs in downtown Seattle, blacks held only 2,160, or less than 3.5 percent, of them.
The organization's goal was to increase black employment by 1,200 in a few months by boycotting of downtown businesses. Unfortunately, during the fall and winter of 1964 there were far fewer new hires than hoped for, and the organization found the project too costly, both in money and volunteer effort, to continue. This was especially true without the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had not joined in. However, by the end of 1964, Seattle CORE claimed that its actions had resulted in the hiring of more than 250 white-collar employees, making it one of the most successful chapters in the country.
Fighting Segregated Housing
In 1960, according to historian Quintard Taylor, 75 percent of Seattle’s 30,000 black residents lived in the Central Area, and by 1965 eight out of 10 black residents lived there. Although the city did nothing to change the restrictive pattern of housing for minorities, others, such as church groups and the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, were working to overcome the status quo. In addition, Sidney Gerber’s Harmony Homes, which built homes for minorities outside the Central Area, and the Fair Housing Listing Service worked to overcome segregation in housing.
CORE entered the fight on July 28, 1963, with Operation Windowshop, a day set aside to encourage black people to go to open houses and to real-estate listings of homes in the newspaper. The real-estate industry countered by closing all of their offices and canceling all open-house viewings. The project, and the response of the real-estate industry, were so unprecedented that the effort became national news and helped to expose the industry's discriminatory practices. It also encouraged some white homeowners to welcome minority buyers.
A six-state, real-estate conference was held at the Seattle Center in September 1963, and a very successful demonstration took place for three and a half days, with overwhelming support from the religious community. The local media, however, largely ignored the wave of indignation at the industry’s discriminatory practices.
Despite calls for action from CORE and other groups, Mayor Gordon Clinton (b. 1920) refused to sign any ordinance condemning discrimination that included enforcement provisions. Instead, a Human Rights Commission was formed, and it drafted an open-housing initiative, with penalties for discrimination. It was submitted to the voters on March 10, 1964, and defeated by a margin of two to one.
CORE continued its efforts to end housing discrimination by focusing on Picture Floor Plans Real Estate Company and picketing and demonstrating at the firm's offices in Bothell and on Greenlake and Aurora for several months. But it was not until April 19, 1968, that Seattle finally passed an open housing ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on race in the sale and rental of housing.
Desegregating the Schools
Statistical studies had shown that eight Central Area schools were more than 85 percent non-white, and that 90 percent of all black elementary school children were enrolled in only 10 schools in the city. Although CORE was engaged in many projects, the members felt in the spring of 1964 that it was time to focus on the segregated schools.
In response to a suit filed by the NAACP against the Seattle School Board in 1961 demanding a change in the segregated schools, the board created the Voluntary Racial Transfer Program. In 1963 both black and white children were allowed to transfer into and out of the various schools to enhance integration. This turned out to be a feeble attempt, so in the summer of 1964, CORE's education committee met with the school board and began negotiations. Out of these meetings one positive action was taken: closed circuit TV programs in human relations for all teachers.
Despite plans submitted to the school board by the NAACP and the Urban League to integrate the schools, the board was adamant, claiming that it was not in the business of imposing social reforms. In the spring of 1966, CORE and other civil rights groups organized a highly successful school boycott. More than 3,000 children skipped school for two days to attend Freedom Schools located in churches, YMCAs, and community centers. It attracted media attention and inspired a community dialogue regarding de facto segregated schools. The school district responded by paying transportation costs for the Voluntary Racial Transfer Program, giving sensitivity training for teachers, updating curriculum, and hiring black administrators. (In 1978 the Seattle School District implemented the Seattle Plan involving cross town busing of entire neighborhoods of children.)
Black Power and a Change in Direction
Some members of CORE began questioning the non-violent approach and wanted a more militant one. This became a challenge to the leadership. The divisive faction worked within CORE and organized themselves as an ad hoc committee, but the leadership prevailed and the faction dissipated. But in July 1967 at a CORE national conference in Oakland, California, an amendment passed which stated that CORE was a mass membership organization to implement the concept of Black Power for black people. Integration was no longer a goal of CORE.
White members stepped back without bitterness and accepted the goal of letting black people work out their problems and try to end white racism. The fledgling all-black Seattle chapter of CORE dissolved itself in 1968 due in large part to a lack of continuity in leadership and a lack of money and participants, although the changing face of the civil rights movement was also a factor.
Early members of CORE, other civil rights organizations, and followers of the civil rights movement in Seattle filled the auditorium of the Northwest African American Museum on March 24, 2011, to hear readings from the book Seattle in Black and White: the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fight for Racial Equality. The four authors of the book were founding members of CORE: Jean Durning (b. 1934), Joan Singler (b. 1934), Bettylou Valentine (b. 1937), and Maid Adams.
They felt that a history of CORE should be written before memory of the organization and its work was lost, their feelings were so strong that when it was published, by the University of Washington Press, they refused royalties in order to reduce the price of the book and give it a larger readership.
The work of these four women and the other members of the organization did much to change practices and attitudes regarding race in Seattle. In less than a decade, they made Seattle a different and a better place for both white and black people. But they would concede that, though much had been accomplished in eliminating discrimination in employment and housing, there is still much left to be done.