Madrona Memories, Part 2 -- Civil Rights and Civil Unrest

  • By Carol Richman
  • Posted 3/15/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3105

This people's history recalls recalls the civil rights movement and civil unrest in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood in the 1960s. The main author is Carol Richman, and this segment also includes reflections by Mary Kenny, Reva K. Twersky, and Judge John Darrah.

Civil Rights and Civil Unrest in Madrona

The Civil Rights Movement and the related activity were probably foremost on the national agenda and certainly the dominant theme in much that was happening in our local life. Many, if not most, Madrona residents participated in some aspect and all were affected by the profound changes being wrought -- in consciousness, attitude, social institutions, and individual status.

Most of the Civil Rights leadership came from close-by neighborhoods as well as from Madrona. The vortex of planning and organizational activity, meetings and rallies, took place in the nearby black churches, the Y's, or the schools. Marches downtown started close by. Much civil disobedience -- protest actions and demonstrations, picketing, sit-ins and shop-ins -- took place close by. The Urban League and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) were joined by newly visible activist civil rights groups with national ties and strong student identification -- CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNICC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee).

The leaders of these groups along with the activist Black ministers made up the majority of the members of the Central Area Civil Rights Committee, which assumed spokesmanship, and leadership, of most of the black population in the Central Area and much of the white population which had joined the movement, including a large number of Madrona residents, young and old. When there were demonstrations and rallies, whole families demonstrated and rallied. There was electricity in the air.

Equal employment opportunity was strongly advocated with marches downtown and sit-ins at offending sites -- like grocery stores. Open housing was a major issue, inspiring picketing of realtors and arrests, a ballot measure, and extensive campaigning and publicity documenting discrimination as well as the march downtown.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination

A high point was the march memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King after his assassination, which drew ten thousand people and probably most of Madrona.

The School Boycott was a memorable event called for by the Central Area Civil Rights Committee, CORE, and the NAACP. It was in protest to the failure of the School District to come up with a plan to desegregate the schools, and/or to begin a program of in-service for all staff. Although addressed to the whole city, the direct appeal was to Central Area Schools. On March 31 and April 1, 1966, enough Central Area youngsters were kept home from school to immobilize the Central Area schools. Maid Adams, a Madrona resident, played a major role in setting up the substitute schools to be conducted in churches so the staying- home students would be using their out-of-school time constructively. I don’t remember whether we really believed this -- that our youngsters would be using their out of school time constructively. Large numbers of our young did crowd into their friendly neighborhood churches. I, with a number of my neighbors, was conducting school at the Madrona Presbyterian Church. It was a total madhouse!! Only possible because it only lasted two days.

The Civil Rights Movement went through phases, like all movements. The initial stage was all inclusive and infused with good will locally. We did things like Christian Fellowship, where families of different races met together, at churches, for picnics, or dinner, for the totally self-conscious purpose of getting to know each other, as a device to cross the race boundaries. Although Madrona people certainly participated, much of our community was really beyond this stage. We were busy interacting in school, church, and civic organizations, and mixing socially in the neighborhood.

As time went by more militancy emerged, more hostility, and more black separatism. Although we were still very much of a community across race lines and with many activists, there was a hard edge, causing some people to withdraw, or move away. It should be stressed that both black and white people backed away from some of the aggressiveness and crudeness of some of the militant folk. It was a cultural thing -- the stress on certain forms of civility and civil discourse -- shared or not or to varying degrees by families of every race.

Black Panthers

In the late 1960's, we (Madrona) gave birth to -- or at least made a major contribution to and provided a home for - the Black Panthers. As I recall, Aaron Dixon was Captain of the Black Panthers for the state of Washington. He was joined by Anthony Ware, Aaron's brother, Elmer, and I think their sister and brother-in-law -- all longtime Madrona residents, and others. Their headquarters was a store front at 34th and Union (just north of the cleaner).

The Black Panthers, with their militant stance and their motto - "Power is in the barrel of a gun" - created an aura of fear surrounding the organization, which I suspect was extremely diluted for those of us who had known its leaders as nice youngsters and having known their families in PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association). The Black Panthers maintained an active life in Madrona and environs with a breakfast program for children, I think at the Madrona Presbyterian Church, which was participated in by other Madrona youth interracial in make-up. (Ultimately our local Black Panthers moved to Oakland, California, joining with the Bay Area chapter and actually pretty much living out the life of the group.)

Mary Kenny: Elmer Dixon came back to Seattle and was very instrumental in establishing the Carolyn Downs Clinic – before the BlackPanther days he had planned on becoming a doctor.

Civic Unrest and Disorder

These young militants were really into defying the establishment and a number of the young people were arrested on a number of occasions, with much publicized trials. The patterns of civil disorder of the times certainly impacted Madrona in a number of negative ways. I don’t remember any specific criminal activity or any real jail sentence, but there were a number of fire bombings and holdups which frightened many people and drove businesses out.

From a most benign perspective these incidents could be seen as excesses of the Civil Rights Movement, derived from the frustrations of the battle for racial equality, and were the work of the young and/or defiant, or impetuous. Some were purely destructive or vindictive in nature, and some were aimed, however misguided, at sending a message.

Mary Kenny: It should be said that the long hot summer of 1968 seemed to me to be a landmark. Young people such as the Kurose and Dixon families were involved earlier but for several years it became almost impossible for young people of color especially to associate socially with whites -- they would be viewed as traitors. Meanwhile we whites would be met with glares, particularly from black youths, for merely existing in “their” neighborhood or shopping at the nearby stores – “Lucky” and 23rd Ave. Safeway.

Our neighborhood shopping center, at 34th and Union, was completely transformed from a pleasant and serviceable grouping of shops to a motley assortment of come and go small business efforts, with a lost sense of community feeling and warmth only recently being restored. The crime rate -- hold ups -- was high all through the Central Area and there were bombings and threats of bombings, resulting in a general sense of hostility, fear, and insecurity. Ms. Etkin, the lady with the concentration camp numbers on her arm, closed her fabric store. For her it must have seemed like the second time around. Ms. Steiner, who ran the good bakery, closed up. The two hardware stores shut down. Sometime, I don't remember when, the IGA moved. The drugstore and the little all-night grocery put up bars on its windows and doors. The cleaner, who was Jewish, was bombed and subsequently died of a heart attack, and someone else took over the cleaning establishment.

The Goldmarks

Much later there was a movement to restore the business district, led by one of our more prominent civic activists, Sally Goldmark - now immortalized by the library bearing her name. Her husband John, a prominent liberal lawyer, died before Sally. Their name must also be associated with probably the most tragic event in our history a number of years later - the axe murder by a madman of Sally's and John's son, daughter-in-law, and two young grandsons on Christmas Eve. The right-wing-lunatic madman mistakenly believed the Goldmarks to be Jewish and even more mistakenly believed that he was called to kill them.

In retrospect, we had such strange things going on in our neighborhood. Things that would have been unthinkable in another time or place! Carla Chotzen, one of our most warm hearted, generous, civic activists allowed some young musicians to use some property she owned, on Pike Street and 34th -- my memory is very hazy on this. Somehow the lovely old house on the lovely large lot caught fire and was destroyed. The property was turned into a park and named after yet another civic activist - a school teacher and musician who died very prematurely of a heart attack - Al Larkin. And although the Chotzens moved away many years ago, two of their sons, Loren and Benjamin, have come back and are realtors in this area.

One of our most able representatives in the State Legislature from 1966 to 1971, was Dave Sprague. Dave, was threatened with a bomb -- his house, that is. Fred Dore’s home was firebombred with his family, including five children, inside. The damage was to the roof and one of the children’s bedrooms. The message was that they -- whoever was wielding the bomb -- needed to be represented by black representatives. This inspired the withdrawal from elective races of Dave Sprague and Fred Dore. The Dores actually moved out of the neighborhood. Fred subsequently became a judge and now a supreme court judge (for the State).

We did have black representation in Sam Smith , a Madrona icon. Also, Peggie Maxie served the 37th District in Olympia for many years. Representative Smith was certainly a pioneer in running for office. He moved from the Legislature to the City Council where he served ably for years.

Mary Kenny: The rumor or scuttlebutt I’ve heard and believed over the years is that the SLF – Seattle Liberation Front – started by a Berkeley professor on sabbatical and living in the apartment building on 37th between Pike and Union, was behind the threats to Dore and Sprague. Further, an associated group, living in Dee Rainbow’s basement at the time were involved with the bombings.

Under the heading of Civil Disorder a reference should be made to the Black Panthers since they were definitely perceived in that context by the larger community, although I don't remember any incidents. The Black Panthers had their headquarters in Madrona, as mentioned above.

At some point -- early on -- the Civil Rights Movement became merged with much of the other activity of the community. While much of what was happening happened under other titles, the movement for greater civil rights and/or racial equality was a strong underlieing theme for everything in our mixed community. The issue of race and racial implications never disappeared from our civic life.

Mary Kenny: One should mention the recently displaced orthodox Jewish portion of Madrona. The Hebrew Academy was just North of Cherry on 24th? Students leaving the 8th grade of the Academy went across the street to Garfield and were a significant academic plus at Garfield for many years. When the synagogue on Yesler – where the Langston Hughes Center has been developed they moved to Seward Park. Many Jewish families sold their homes and moved. The rabbi [Rabbi Sholom Rivkin] lived in the lovely brick home at 3701 East Marion – they moved in 1969. Our home was owned by Adele and David Frand – they moved in November 1963. The St Therese Convent, purchased around 1968-1969, across the alley from the school playground at 36th and Marion, was sold by a Jewish family. These are three homes I know of but there was a real exodus over a decade.

Reva K. Twersky: [Note: This reflection is taken from a memoir and refers to the Madrona Jewish community and happenings in Madrona following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.]

There already had been a number of incidents of destruction in the Central-Madrona area following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: fire-bombing of stores and stone throwing at passing cars. A police car followed the procession of residents of the Madrona district from the synagogue on 17th and Yesler Way to 33rd and Marion Street in the Madrona area. We lived on 33rd and Spring Street, one block north. The reason the police car turned left on Marion Street was that the leaders of the Black Panther movement lived on our b lock. They would have called a police car on the block “police harassment.” The following year, we purchased a home in Seward Park. Many of our friends already lived there.

There were turmoil and many changes in our neighborhood following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968. Windows were smashed in business near 34th and Union as well as at Brenner Brothers’ Bakery on the corner of Cherry Street and Empire Way (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way). There was also much vandalism inside the store. Stones were thrown at cars ... on Cherry Street. When my friend Zeana came to visit us, she went via the lake [Lake Washington], fearing to drive through the Central area. Those were tense times. One summer evening when I was sitting in my back yard, David slowly opened the gate leading to the yard. I jumped, fearing that it was someone coming to do damage.

The Black Panther leadership lived near 33rd and Marion Street, at the other end of our block. They would drill in Madrona Playground across the street from our home. One day, as guests left our house, they heard one of the Panthers say: “Next time, we’ll bring guns.”

Judge John Darrah: My perspective is mainly legal because of certain activities: ACLU board member from 1964-69, Assistant U.S. Attorney from 1967-1969 and start up of first public defender office in November 1969. All three of these activities gave me opportunities to see the turbulence that swept Seattle at that time and provided a context for what I experienced as a resident of Madrona.

Before 1969, the cities of Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere had exploded in anger and arson in a way that folks in Seattle could only look upon with awe and detachment. It simply couldn’t happen here. The first event that should have served as warning that the problems were close to home was, to my poor memory, the arson of the large wooden structure on the Leschi waterfront that housed a row boat rental business. This was located where the building that now houses Daniel’s Broiler now sits. Blacks had complained that they were refused service when they tried to rent boats and the manager responded that he only refused to rent to people who wouldn’t return his equipment. The fire was spectacular but no one took responsibility for it.

It wasn’t long before businesses at 34th and Union and Empire Way (now MLK Jr.) and Cherry were having their windows smashed and some fires set.

Earlier in the decade the supermarket at Empire and Union (most recently Union Street Red Apple) had sold after refusing to hire blacks, and the new owners were equal opportunity employers and escaped any major problems.

My memories of that time center mainly on the Model Cities meetings at the E. Cherry YWCA, the Black Panther activity around 34th and Union and The Model Cities meetings that I attended at the “Y.” [These] ... were often raucous events. The voices of the poor were encouraged and with increasing confidence they spoke. Whether they were young or old their anger was expressed clearly, often at fever pitch. While I often wondered if the feelings would erupt into violence against the whites in the audience, they never did. One could engage people after the meeting was over in normal-tone conversations and it appeared that for many this was a first, and long awaited opportunity to communicate with members of another race.

Once outside the building reality intruded. Broken glass on the sidewalk, the butcher store across the street closed, the theater burned down. I never felt threatened walking home, but I never considered bringing my car.

The Black Panthers had a hard time getting credibility at first. The Dixon brothers had baby sat Dave Sprague’s children and Dave would say what fine young men they were. Guy Kurose would speak the revolutionary rhetoric but everyone knew the Kurose family as peaceful, law abiding folks.

In order to make the point that they really meant business the Panthers once held a parade on 34th Ave with each man displaying a gun. The police had the good sense to let this pass. Once a police car received a shotgun blast in its door (the pellets didn’t penetrate) and a gunshot into the fire station was thought to have been fired from the house catty cornered across the intersection.

The only significant criminal charge against a Panther was brought against Aaron Dixon based on surveillance conducted by the Seattle Police. William L. Dwyer, later a federal judge, took the case pro bono. The principal issue in the resulting jury trial was whether the police witness was able to see what he said he saw. The jury acquitted.

Mike Rosen, then executive director of the state ACLU lived at 38th and E. Pine in Madrona. One evening in 1968 a device identified by the fire department as a military CS grenade was tossed in through a window and the gas rendered the home unlivable for weeks afterward. Mike was unable to interest the city police in investigating the crime even when he came up with a prime suspect from Snohomish County.

Reverend Phil Muir, on behalf of his congregation, refused to allow the Black Panthers to hold certain activities in the church. Shortly afterward a hole was drilled in the siding of the house and flammable liquid was poured in. The resulting fire smoldered for hours before traveling inside the wall to the second story and appearing as a roof fire where it was quickly extinguished. The reverend and his wife and children were not at home.

One winter evening I heard a scream outside my home near 37th and E. Union. I ran outside into a small accumulation of new snow to find a strong-arm robbery in progress across the street. At my shout, the robber ran off and I found the terrified victim to be the woman who ran the cleaners at 34th and Union. Not long after, she left the business and moved from the neighborhood.

One night an explosion jarred me awake and out of bed. After hastily dressing I walked around the block to see where it came from. Someone had tossed dynamite onto the roof of Senator Fred Dore’s home (he was in Olympia but his family was home). The blast occurred above the wall that separated the garage from the bedroom of two of his daughters. Fortunately, the resulting hole was mainly on the garage side of the wall. Later, several sticks of dynamite were found discarded below the cul-de-sac at 36th and Marion.

After several months another blast occurred at Representative Dave Sprague’s home at 35th and E Columbia. Dynamite was placed against the front door and again no one was hurt. Shortly thereafter Fred Dore moved to the North End district and Dave Sprague did not run for re-election.

These events were in the context of a black community that was outraged at the institutional racism that pervaded American cities and a student community which was outraged about the Viet Nam War. Elements in both these communities were proclaiming that violence was necessary to achieve change. The Weathermen, an off-shoot of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS), were one such group and the Black Panthers were another.

Much of the criminal violence went unsolved during this period. Part of the blame for this was undoubtedly the fact that the Seattle Police Department was suffering from the turmoil caused by decades of a payoff system that reached to the assistant chief. (The palace rebellion in November, 1969, was the turning point, but rebuilding leadership and morale was a slow process)

But part of the blame was in the passion and dedication of the disaffected. In early 1970, The Seattle Times noted there had been 90 bombings in the city in 16 months that had remained unsolved. The FBI had informants in SDS, the Weathermen, and the Panthers. They had no informants within a group that was associated with a Black newspaper in town, which engaged in fiery rhetoric. The paper would call for the death or destruction of people such as Edwin Pratt and Morris Hardcastle. Soon thereafter Ed Pratt would be gunned down at his front door, and Hardcastle Realty would be burned. The FBI believed that a cell structure enabled the persons who did the dirty work to be isolated from the persons who exercised their free speech.

Both Dore and Sprague had been attacked in that newspaper as unrepresentative of the people in their legislative district, but the identity of those whose violence convinced them to leave has never come to light. Despite intense investigation, Ed Pratt’s murder has never been solved.


Sources:

By Carol Richman, with additions by Mary Kenny, Reva K. Twersky, and Judge John Darrah, Seattle, Washington, 1999.
Note: This essay was corrected as to the Rivkin residence per communication with Jacqueline Rivkin on March 23, 2007.


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