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Has Seattle always been so progressive?

Violet and Norward Brooks in front of a house they struggled to buy due to discrimination.
KUOW Photo/Caroline Chamberlain
Violet and Norward Brooks in front of a house they struggled to buy due to discrimination.

The results of the recent presidential election have revealed stark divisions in this country.

This is especially clear in Seattle, where we’re notorious for being one of the most progressive cities in the country.

This reputation prompted a question for KUOW's Local Wonder from listener Reverend Ray Neal: “Has Seattle always been progressive?”

Before we answer this question, it’s important to acknowledge Seattle and Washington’s long history of progressive and even radical politics.

In 1936, the U.S. postmaster general joked, “There are 47 states in the Union, and the Soviet of Washington.”

Politicians revel in our progressive reputation when they visit the city. At a book tour in Seattle, Sen. Bernie Sanders commended the city: “Wherever I go around the country, I always mention Seattle as having gone first in raising the minimum wage.”

But this picture of progressive Seattle isn’t the full story. 

“Seattle supported the internment of the Japanese during World War II; Seattleites tried to eject Chinese residents from the city,” said Knute Berger, a writer for Crosscut and local historian.

[asset-images[{"caption": "An editorialized map of Seattle depicting the few places people of color could get housing.", "fid": "133151", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/progressive-2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF SEATTLE CIVIL RIGHTS AND LABOR HISTORY PROJECT, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON"}]]“One of the most glaring is our history of redlining,” Berger said, referring to the practice of preventing black people from buying houses in the city. 

Many examples of Seattle's less-than-progressive record surround race, like the open housing ordinance in 1964. The ordinance would have made it illegal to discriminate against people of color who wanted to buy or rent housing in Seattle.

At the time, people of color could live in just 10 percent of the city due to restrictive covenants and redlining. Supporters and opponents of the ordinance gathered for a public hearing in October 1963.

“This is not a public housing ordinance. This is a thought control bill,” said homeowner Nancy McGhee. She opposed the law and said her reasons had nothing to do with race.

“I do not oppose this law because it deprives one race and it gives to another," McGhee said. "I object because it deprives all of us of a basic freedom.”

People of color, she said, could improve their situation by proving themselves to whites.

“Many minority groups in our own area have, in the eyes of their fellow citizens and neighbors, become openly welcomed in housing and in any public place. They did not need the federal, state or local governments to deprive others to obtain these goals.”

Reverend John Hurst Adams also spoke at the meeting. He favored the law. 

“The problems of prejudice, segregation and discrimination in America are the moral problems of the white community," Adams said. "We know this and you know this. Your right and resolute action is the only answer and your capacity to take that action is the only debate. A clear choice is yours.”

Ultimately, the vote wasn't even close. Seattle turned down the open housing ordinance by a two to one margin.

[asset-images[{"caption": "An open housing demonstration near Westlake Mall in 1964.", "fid": "133152", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/progressive-5.jpg", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF MOHAI, SEATTLE P-I COLLECTION."}]]

This debate and vote over open housing in Seattle affected Norward Brooks personally. He’s the former executive director of the King County NAACP. It wasn’t easy for him to buy a home back then.

“It was an experience,” Norward said.

Norward had to buy his house through a white man who pretended that he wanted the house. This was after the seller declined to sell it to Norward after he saw that he was black.

This experience in supposedly progressive Seattle was surprising for Norward, who moved here from the South.

“Coming from Louisiana, I was accustomed to being discriminated against, thinking that when I got to Seattle that would not be the case," Norward said. "But Seattle is just as bad or worse, because in Louisiana I knew where I couldn’t be. You were never told in Seattle where you couldn’t be; they just had it fixed so that you could never get there.”

Seattle’s rejection of the open housing ordinance stands out because of what happened next at the national level.

Months after Seattle voters locally rejected open housing, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a signature piece of the Civil Rights agenda.

[asset-images[{"caption": "This 1886 illustration from Harper's Weekly, a national magazine, shows the anti-Chinese riots in Seattle. It shows a group of Chinese men (center) being chased and beaten by the mob.", "fid": "133153", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/progressive-4.jpg", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF MOHAI, SEATTLE P-I COLLECTION."}]]

Quintard Taylor, a history professor at the University of Washington, said this division between local and national ideals was common.

“I think a lot of people saw Civil Rights as essentially a Southern problem," Taylor said. "Therefore they could support national efforts to eliminate restrictions on voting while at the same time they could vote for local restrictions on housing, particularly housing segregation.”

While Seattle rejected open housing, other cities approved it: Wichita, Kansas; Beloit, Wisconsin and Louisville, Kentucky.

Seattle didn’t reconsider its position on open housing until 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were protests across the country, and there were fears they would spread to Seattle.

Taylor said the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an open housing ordinance, in part to maintain peace in the city.

Berger, the historian, said this tells you something about Seattle’s history.

“It took Martin Luther King’s assassination to get open housing in Seattle? I mean that is really shocking to me," he said. "Not shocking if you know the history, but if you haven’t thought much about it, and you think of Seattle as this liberal progressive place, really that has not come naturally. It had to be fought for.”

It’s important to note that even after many cities and states passed open housing laws, they weren’t always enforced and discrimination continued. But Seattle was not progressive on this issue by any measure.

[asset-images[{"caption": "This 1942 photo shows Japanese Americans registering for evacuation.", "fid": "133154", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201701/progressive-3.jpg", "attribution": "Credit COURTESY OF MOHAI, SEATTLE P-I COLLECTION."}]]There have been times, too, when Seattle thought it was being progressive in pursuing something, when in reality, it was more complicated.

“A particular policy may seem to be progressive or thoughtful in the minds of one person but not in the minds of others,” said environmental historian Matt Klingle.

His book, "An Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle," is about a 1960s environmental cleanup in Seattle that demonstrates this paradox.

Lake Washington was so dirty, it was nicknamed "Lake Stinko." It was also in the backyard of many well-heeled residents.

But when the city cleaned Lake Washington, its pollution was sent to the Duwamish river where poorer residents lived.

Klingle said that's why marginalized groups are sometimes suspicious of efforts touted in the name of progress.

“If you’re living in a place like Ballard or Queen Anne, those initiatives look rather obvious. But if you’re someone in a place like Enumclaw or Carnation, you might look at what Seattle and King County are doing as a sense of overreach," he said. "It’s very easy for people living in a place like Seattle to imagine that they’re in the right. But shift the perspective, and that certitude quickly crumbles.”

So, has Seattle always been progressive? No.

But the term has changed over time and has always been full of contradictions.

For example, Washington state was considered progressive when it banned alcohol in 1916.

A century later Washington hit another progressive milestone when it legalized marijuana.

So what is progressive? That depends on who you ask and when.

Caroline Chamberlain can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.

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