Seattle votes down open housing on March 10, 1964.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/31/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3154

On March 10, 1964, Seattle voters reject an "Open Housing" referendum to end racial discrimination in home sales and rentals by nearly two to one. Voters also reject a "COMET" initiative to expand the city's system of electric trolley buses, and they elect former City Council Member J. D. "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) as mayor.

Discrimination Rampant

Discrimination in housing sales and rentals resulted in the confinement of racial minorities, particularly African Americans, to Seattle's Central Area. This was a major source of racial discord in the city. The Greater Seattle Housing Council, a creation of the Civic Unity Committee in 1956, had failed to issue a fair-housing policy. Civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League withdrew from the council because of its lack of action.

In July 1962, Mayor Gordon S. Clinton (1920-2011) asked the city council for a Citizens Advisory Commission on Minority Housing. In December 1962, the committee concluded that an open housing ordinance was "an essential tool for the work of a city commission on human relations" (Droker).

Wing Luke's Strategy

The city council avoided action on the report until Mayor Clinton formally requested the formation of a Human Rights Commission. Councilman Wing Luke (1925-1965) cautioned Clinton against a powerless commission since it "could delude the public into believing that something concrete had been done about the problem" (Droker). Luke backed an open housing law.

Seattle experienced what was probably the city's first sit-in of the Civil Rights Era on July 1, 1963, when the city council began hearings on Clinton's proposal. Demonstrators gathered from the Central District Youth Club under the leadership of Rev. Mance Jackson and Rev. Samuel McKinney (1926-2018). Mayor Clinton stated, "Nothing will be gained by this type of demonstration. In fact, it will set back their cause" (Droker).

On July 15, 1963, the city council created a Human Rights Commission under the leadership of Philip Hayasaka. The commission was asked to draft an open housing ordinance. Luke maneuvered the council into agreeing that it would pass whatever statute the commission developed. Opponents of any open housing bill supported a tough law, hoping that it would fail. Proponents, including Luke and fellow councilman A. Ludlow Kramer, wanted a more moderate measure that would have a better chance of passing. African American leaders criticized Luke and Kramer for their stance.

Mild Anti-Discrimination Measure Fails

The Human Rights Commission drafted an ordinance making housing discrimination a misdemeanor. It included an emergency clause making it effective immediately.

Supporters of the measure embarked on an educational campaign. Opponents, financed by real estate interests, did not act until the final week of the campaign in March 1964. Realtors denied that the ordinance was necessary and they claimed that it trampled on property rights. One ad proclaimed, "Your Rights are at Stake! Would you like a criminal record because you sold your home or rented your apartment to a person of your choice?"

On March 10, 1964, voters rejected the ordinance 112,448 to 53,453. They elected J.D. "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) as mayor along with two council members, all of whom had opposed the ordinance.

An open housing law passed in Seattle in April 1968.


Sources:

Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage, A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); Howard Alan Droker, "The Seattle Civic Unity Committee and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1964," (Ph.D Thesis, University of Washington, 1974).


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