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Civic Unity Committee in Seattle Essay 2119 : Printer-Friendly Format

In January 1944, Mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982), who was Seattle's mayor from 1942-1952, formed Seattle's Civic Unity Committee  to manage and assuage growing fears of racial violence. Riots in Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles snatched away Seattle's false security blanket, forcing a close examination of race relations. The Civic Unity Committee, modeled after similar committees in Detroit and New York, was a multiracial citizen task force. The committee advised the mayor, conducted consciousness-raising programs on racism, and produced a monthly newsletter, Fair Play, to celebrate positive civic actions.

War Transforms Racial Landscape

From 1940 to 1945, Seattle's black population grew from 3,789 to approximately 10,000, with significant consequences. Although the "Emerald City's" nonwhite population was only 4 percent in 1940, including Asians and Indians, the impact of 4,000 new black residents was substantial. These newcomers came looking for work in Seattle's bustling war industries, especially Boeing, where they received much resistance from organized labor and the company's management.

With many of its able-bodied men off to war, the nation witnessed an acute labor shortage, precipitating President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 which forbade discrimination in firms with government contracts. This June 1941 directive opened many industries' doors to previously excluded black workers.

This was especially true in Seattle, which saw $5.6 billion in wartime contracts. During the first year of the war, most black workers came to Seattle to work in its shipyards. Boeing saw its first wave of black labor in 1943. By the end of the war 7 percent of shipyard workers and 3 percent of aircraft construction workers were black. Fort Lawton and other local military installations included 4,000 black soldiers. Seattle's racial landscape would be forever changed by these employment trends established in wartime.

Programming Against Prejudice

These changes, coupled with race riots in Detroit, Harlem, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, sent creeping fears through Seattle's civic leaders. Local civic groups, labor unions, black citizens, and churches sent letters and petitions to the Mayor's office in 1943, expressing concern over mounting racial tension.

In reaction, Mayor Devin formed Seattle's Civic Unity Committee. The group, which first met on February 14, 1944, included a diverse sampling of local community members, but none with overtly "leftist" leanings. The following were called into service:

  • George Greenwood (Chair), President, Pacific National Bank
  • Mrs. A. Scott Bullitt (Dorothy Bullitt), President, Stimson Realty Company
  • Dr. James Brott Konna, University Methodist Church
  • Robert S. MacFarlane, Vice-President, Assistant to the President, Northern Pacific Railway
  • Mrs. Henry B. Owen, Active Civic Leader
  • Professor Linden A. Mander, Political Science Department, University of Washington
  • Lew G. Kay, Manager, Goon Dip Company (representing Chinese community)
  • Roy Atkinson, Regional Director, Regional Office of the C.I.O. (labor)
  • Arthur Barnett, Lawyer
  • Reverend Benjamin Davis, Minister, Mt. Zion Baptist Church
  • Dr. Felix Cooper, Dentist (representing black community)
  • A. E. Martin, Business Manger, Electrictal Union B77
  • Henry Isaacson, President, Isaacson's Iron Works
  • Al Shemanski, President, Eastern Outfitting Company and President, Board of Regents, University of Washington (representing Jewish community)
  • Ann P. Madsen, Executive Secretary of the Seattle Civilian War Commission

The Mayor charged the committee with the coordination of educational programs and outreach, and this led to a monthly newletter, Fair Play. This publication highlighted positive, race-sensitive programs, and the work of community leaders. The committee also considered incidents suggesting racial prejudice in law enforcement, employment, housing, recreation, public facilities, and education. The year 1944 was an exceptionally busy one.

What They Found

During their first year, the Civic Unity Committee considered a battery of race-related incidents. These suggested that the city was not immune to racism, even without the long history of strife witnessed in the American South. In a speech delivered to the University of Washington's Institute of Government on July 24, 1944, Devin stated, "a great bulk of the people in this city haven't any definite prejudices for or against the Negro people or anyone else. We are a northern city which means that we did not grow up with a prejudice against the Negro race."

Despite this pervasive sentiment, racially-motivated violence grew in the last years of World War II. The most egregious example, race riots at Fort Lawton, fell under the military's purview, not the Civic Unity Committee's. This notorious incident received considerable local press, which the Committee analyzed. They found that the facts and headlines were biased and misleading. In reaction to their inequitable treatment at Fort Lawton, black soldiers attacked a barracks housing Italian prisoners of war. These prisoners, they felt, had received preferential treatment. Reports of the incident were highly dramatized, and fed upon racial stereotypes.

The CUC also considered quieter acts of racial bias.

One of the first cases under consideration involved the alleged unfair treatment of a black woman by the Seattle Police. When a white female bus driver asked a black man to leave the bus, a heated argument broke out between black and white passengers. Fearing violence, the driver alerted the police. When they arrived, a black woman argued the case of the black man who had been asked to leave, and created a "disturbance." She resisted arrest, and the police took action, using no "more force than was necessary under the circumstances."

Another case involved the dissemination of racist posters at an unnamed "local defense plant." According to committee member Linden Mander, they considered, "the ominous increase in the number of anti-Negro and anti-Semitic posters" in the workplace. Yet another incident involved potentially biased comments printed in a "Native Sons of Washington" publication. In an editorial, "Discrimination Against the Negro," the committee found subtle but effective racism.

Other incidents concerned discriminatory housing policies, hotel practices, and racist cartoons in local newspapers.

After the War

After the war, the Civic Unity Committee focused on housing and educational opportunities for minorities, and became part of the conservative civil rights establishment along with the Washington State Board Against Discrimination (WSBAD). The latter was created to encourage compliance with the 1949 Fair Employment Practices Act prohibiting employment bias "because of race, creed, color or national origin."

So-called radical organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), the Seattle Urban League, and the Anti-Defamation League. Letitia A. Graves founded the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP in 1913 to protest Woodrow Wilson's policy of segregating black federal employees. The Seattle Chapter of the Urban League was founded in 1930; the Seattle Anti-Defamation League soon followed.

Throughout its tenure, the Civic Unity Committee met racial problems with a light touch. Their solutions were often copied from actions in other cities. In most cases they prescribed awarenessness-raising seminars for workplaces and communities. Anti-communist sentiment of the 1950s overshadowed many other social concerns, and stole much of the fire that formed the committee in 1944.

The Civic Unity Committee was disbanded in the early 1960s. Its members and agenda were absorbed into the NAACP and the Seattle Urban League as, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement exploded.

Calvin F. Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1944); Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Linden A. Mander, "The Seattle Civic Unity Committee," typescript, 1944, Civic Unity Committee Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Department of Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives.

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Mayor William F. Devin with Louise Blackman, 1950
Courtesy UW Special Collections

William F. Devin, 1942
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

The Seattle Times, August 18, 1944

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