Tag Archives: Seattle

Seattle History, Gay Activism, and the Future of LGBTQI Scholarship

atkinsIn many ways, 1977 represented a great deal of possibility for Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Granted in years prior, the Gay Community Center on Renton Hill had been bombed and Robert Sirico’s gay Metropolitan Community Church faced possible closure, yet on July 1, 1976 the state’s anti-sodomy law was repealed and the Seattle City Council had passed a fair housing act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Through the leadership of LGBTQ leader Charlie Brydon Seattle residents witnessed their first Gay Pride Parade; advocates in the state legislature pushed further in an attempt to pass a Gay Rights Bill. The latter failed and the promise of 1977 curdled into “the bleakest year” in decades, writes Seattle University Professor and author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary Atkins. Forty years later, much has changed. The Metropole sat down (virtually) with Atkins to discuss Gay Seattle, the city’s present and past, and the future of LGBTQI activism and scholarship.

To what extent does Seattle’s LGBTQ history resemble and differ with other urban cities, particularly on the West Coast? For example, as you note in your book, WWII had a great deal of influence on the city’s expansion but also the creation of a larger LGBTQ (and I realize that individuals from that time would not identify this way, but for consistency in my questions I will use this term) community, but this was not unique to Seattle. San Francisco, L.A., NYC could all make similar claims, however, the creation of a Gay Community Center in 1969 in Seattle does predate L.A.’s own which I believe did not come into existence until the early 1970s. That said, the first attempts to establish a Mattachine Society in Washington occurred in Tacoma in 1959 and not Seattle, which I think would be a surprise to some readers. So the history is complex in this regard. I guess what makes Seattle unique in its development of an LGBTQ community?

 Thanks to the effort historians have made to discover our stories, as well as what activists have done to create unifying symbols such as the rainbow flag, we’ve gotten used to the “idea” that LGBTQ folks have a national and even a global history, that “we are everywhere” as the saying goes. Having modern media and transportation systems that let us know and visit people all over the world has helped develop that consciousness too. But it’s easy to forget that sexual attraction and desire and the history of those are originally intensely local, that we are also “some place” when we as individuals develop loving relationships or “come out.” And those local places heavily influence how we express that.

Every city on the American West Coast was shaped by a slightly different set of historical factors. The Spanish missionary influence that helped shape San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, was largely missing in Seattle, although a very different style of French missionary influence was present in other nearby areas of Idaho and Montana. In Seattle’s case, the city brought together its own unique cultural configuration of local native understandings of gender and sexuality, of pragmatic Midwest immigrants who wanted neatly planned communities, of utopians who saw in the natural beauty of the area chances for varied paradises, and of adventurers escaping their families back east by joining the Alaska gold rush and laborers in mostly male camps cutting timber and building railroads. That gave the city an eclectic blending of interests and cross-purposes. Yet, everyone was, ultimately, trying to survive in what for a long time was just a gritty rain-driven frontier town–small compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think you had the emergence of Seattle’s fame for being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings that, ultimately, were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions and not get too passionately involved or ideologically troubled with their neighbors.

The LGBTQ community that emerged reflected that, right down to the police department’s decision from the 19th century until the 1960s to simply let one side of the city pass laws and another side – us – who would have been heavily oppressed by them be tolerated, albeit for a monetary price, of course. So no Stonewalls raids here, just some low-level police harassment whenever payment weren’t made. Seattle had the pragmatic university professors who created the early political groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dorian Society and subsequent Dorian Group, operating with their keen sense of respectability, connecting with politicians and business people, running their meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. But we also had gay women and men setting up utopian-style rural communes on the Olympic Peninsula and on neighboring islands – or joining economic co-ops in the city and promoting consciousness raising groups where everyone could feel safe to tell their stories. We drew on influences from the socialist and labor movement in Seattle – those unions that formed to represent laborers in the seafaring and timbering world. Radical Women, a socialist group, would demand that other organizations – like the respectably capitalistic middle class Dorian Group — recognize that the way homosexuals were treated as sick or as illegal was not really the core of the oppression. Rather, it was the challenge we presented to a form of capitalism that had been built upon the idea of the monogamous heterosexual family.

To be sure, there were battles within the community as it emerged with a public voice, but ultimately if anything was to be achieved, multiple voices had to be consulted, resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.

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As a professor who came to academia through journalism, do you think you view scholarship differently from more traditional academics (particularly since you see the occasional flare up between journalists and academics when covering the same issue)? If so how? If not why? Relatedly, when writing Gay Seattle how did your background in journalism help you? How did you decide on your sources for Gay Seattle?

When I told my high school counselor I wanted to major in History in college, she discouraged me by saying, “The only thing you can do with that is teach.” Since I enjoyed writing, she encouraged me to instead consider journalism – the profession of “historians in a hurry” as the phrase goes. It was a good choice because I eventually found that journalism actually let me follow both my interest in writing narratives about real people and their struggles AND my interest in the historical context within which they were operating. Story, after all, is made from a character confronting a significant problem, but within a broader context.

I think it’s unfortunate that academic writing and narrative non-fiction journalism sometimes seem to exist in two different worlds. One targets writing primarily for fellow specialists and exploring theoretical propositions often in a style virtually indecipherable to a general audience. The other aims at that larger audience but often forgets to ask those more theoretical or political questions. The division that has occurred between “queer theory” with its theoretical emphasis and “gay studies” with its original focus on uncovering specific stories about people and communities is an example of that.

As is true of most long-form narrative journalists, I try to hit that sweet spot that links those two worlds of inquiry. As Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, two of the best once wrote, the particular genre I work in “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Or at least tries to. So I always look for what we often refer to as the “ladder of abstraction” – those points within a particular character’s story where it’s possible to illustrate a broader theoretical or political context. My books are built upon characters and their problems, but woven through each are explorations of broader theories. Gay Seattle, for example, was built upon theories of geographic sense of place from Yi-Fu Tuan (especially his books Landscapes of Fear and Space and Place) and of figurative public architecture from Christian Norberg-Schulz (The Concept of Dwelling). The question that guided Gay Seattle was this: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized as sexual or gender criminals and perverts into citizens who can participate equally in the public civic discourse that marks a city — into an empowered group that is no longer outcast but that can truly be said either to have found or at least be well on their way to creating a sense of belonging within a local urban environment? How do they gain a public voice?

But, whew, I wasn’t about to put all that into the prologue!

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Seattle’s first street car turning from Occidental Avenue to Yesler Way, Theo. E. Peiser, 1884, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead I talked about an 18-year-old sailor, John Collins, who went looking for some male companionship on a cold Monday night in downtown Seattle in November 1895 and found another teenager named Benjamin Layton. The two ended up in a room in a nearby saloon catering to sailors, loggers, gold rushers – and female prostitutes. That’s when they got reported to the police by a jealous prostitute, turning Collins into one of the first men in Seattle to be prosecuted for violating a law he didn’t even know existed – the newly adopted state sodomy law intended to regulate male-male sexuality. The case had to be dropped, though, when Layton – coerced into being the state’s witness – hopped a train and disappeared. I was very fortunate to find the transcript of Collins’ hearing in court records. From there, it was easy to pivot repeatedly to aspects of the story of what was essentially a century-long saga to overturn that law and resist the police, as well as challenge various medical practices. That carried readers through the history that LGBTQ citizens had experienced to secure a voice and a sense of place in Seattle.

According to your book, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the earliest organized attempts to pass legislation that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. How do you think about this moment in Seattle history and the city’s LGBT community? What might be some important take a ways not only in terms of history but also modern politics and Seattle municipal politics?

 Unfortunately, there’s a sad irony this year to that particular anniversary. It took from 1977 until 2006 to get the law adopted – three decades in a state often considered progressive. Success didn’t actually happen until the business community came on board, especially the power of Seattle’s new high-tech corporations. That’s certainly one lesson about how the effort to secure a public voice is a saga that evolves over many generations and that must involve both political and economic organizing.

Ed Murray was the gay state senator who helped complete that battle in the state Legislature and finally secure the non-discrimination law that bears his name. Murray also helped pull together a coalition to pass a marriage equality law in 2012 and then went on to beat an incumbent and become Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.

But as the city learned for the first time this spring, during Murray’s efforts to pass those bills, he was repeatedly being privately subjected to highly questionable charges that he had paid teenagers under the age of legal consent for sex in the 1980s before he entered the Legislature. The accusations never became public because those making them were considered not credible. But this spring, with Murray positioned to win an easy re-election and leading a very public effort to resist the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to publicize many of the charges it had actually known about and dismissed at the time as not reliable. It did so because of a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15 — but who himself has severe credibility issues since he has dozens of criminal convictions and mis-described critical parts of Murray’s anatomy. (Yes, we’ve been treated to awkward press descriptions of the mayor’s genitals.) Murray flatly denies any molestation or ever paying for sex.

Compounding the suspicion about the nature and timing of the lawsuit is the fact that an attorney known for his past anti-gay stances heads the law firm handling the suit. So a pallor of political opportunism hangs over the accusations. Still, because of the media coverage of the supposed – and still unproven – sex scandal, Murray, the man who led the final successful battles for that non-discrimination law, was forced to withdraw from re-election.

The local LGBTQ community has been split and shaken – not wanting to buy into trumped up stereotypes of molestation that are often slung by political opponents against gay men, but also not wanting to seem to be challenging the credibility of those who claim to have been sexually abused. After all, many gay, lesbian and transgender youth do become victims of crime or exploitation. So now we wait for the civil trail.

I wrote in Gay Seattle that 1977 had been a particularly rough year for the local LGBTQ community as it began to deal with severe backlash against what had been some important legal accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, we see some similar things happening. I think it’s historical moments like this that will go on to become particularly crucial ones in shaping the next steps in the local community’s sense of itself.

[Update: The suit against Murray was dropped as Atkin’s pointed out in an email to The Metropole, “the accuser and his lawyer dropped the lawsuit, adding to the impression that the original lawsuit was — as Murray has termed it — a ‘political takedown’ using old stereotypes about gay men.” See here for more details. ]

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Surplus Store, horizontal, 1st Avenue & Battery Street, John Margolies, 1977, John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

You write about the concept of “coming home” in Gay Seattle. Can you explain this concept (which seems to some extent multivalent in the book) and how places like Seattle fit into or draw out this idea?

As a writer, I look for themes that are universal in our lives. Creating a sense of place is a struggle many of us engage in. It involves more than just “coming out” and letting the world know who you are. In Gay Seattle I use a quotation from the theologian Walter Brueggemann who said that when you’re writing about people whose common experience is that of being emotional outcasts, rather than sharing a common race or social class, then the central question is not going to be about emancipation but about “rootage” – in our case, not just about “gay or LGBTQ freedom” but about “LGBTQ location” within a story about a series of generations gaining a promise and looking for fulfillment.

That’s one reason that in Gay Seattle I tried hard to locate the historical evolution of the gay community within the history of the city itself rather than treating it as a kind of “ghetto” history. So I spent a lot of time writing about the geography and overall factors that shaped the city, and then situated the lesbian and gay stories within that broader context. One of my goals, actually, was to be sure that the book ended up in the “Seattle/Northwest history” sections of bookstores and libraries and would not be ghettoized in some “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section. To this day, when I walk into one of the few bookstores we still have left in Seattle, I’m happy when I see it sitting there, right in front of the store, in the Seattle and Northwest history section – not several aisles back in the LGBTQ section. I wanted it to be clear that we were part of the entire urban history of the city, not some niche.

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Rotating neon ampersand part of Roy McMakin’s installation `Love & Loss` (2005), photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

In political terms and scholarship, where do you see the movement and field going? You mention more work on transgender issues in the introduction to the paperback edition of Gay Seattle. Can you expand on this or discuss other directions you see both politics and academia moving?

I guess it might be said that we’re poised on intermingled waves. One wave brought us the new discoveries of historical stories and documents and is exemplified by the efforts of folks likes John Boswell, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, George Chauncey and all the other historical writers who are still giving us richly detailed accounts of the people who have been part of the LGBTQ saga. There’s a continuing international expansion of that research that I think is very exciting as we get more chronicles from Asia, Africa and South America.

Another wave has given us “queer studies,” building on theoreticians such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. That has drawn us into deeper theoretical reflections on how knowledge about sexual and gender identities are constructed through local deployments of language and power.

Where does it go? I recently attended the world conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Bangkok. It brought political activists from all over the world. Very importantly, the association adds the “I” for “intersexual” onto LGBTQI. It was fascinating to me to see how capably people from all over the globe and from all races are fusing what I refer to as those two waves – the specific stories of struggle and community and the critical theories about gender and sexuality. The thinking and the political activism going on in China, in Africa, in New Zealand, in South America – that’s the next big story in LGBTQI scholarship and history. It’ll be written city-by-city and nation-by-nation but always with an eye toward global impacts.

 

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How did your work on Gay Seattle influence your second book, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore? What are you working on now?

The question that I looked at in Imagining Gay Paradise was essentially the same as in Gay Seattle: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized because of their sexuality or gender into citizens who participate equally in the public civic discourse and who feel they have a strong sense of place?

But in Imagining Gay Paradise I wanted to look at a region rather than a city, and I wanted it to be an area that had been influenced by European colonialism. Hence, Southeast Asia became a logical choice, with three very different geographical areas being the focus: Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I wanted to see what communication processes were available when the American civil rights influence that helped shape the experience in Seattle was missing. So the processes of communication I looked at were quite different. There were no big public marches or civil rights actions. Instead, there was the creation of an art-based community in Bali in the 1930s and 1940s, one that was effectively then destroyed by a Nazi-inspired sex scandal. There was a very famous gay men’s sauna in Bangkok that reflected both the sexual image of Bangkok but also created a place for sexual dissent. And there was a new wave of cyberspace activism occurring in Singapore.

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Photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

I bounced around through time and space to try to understand particular characters and their contexts over a period that ran from 1910 until 2010. That included the early 20th century king of Siam, Rama VI, who got rid of his father’s harem and began to adjust family laws to enforce British concepts of romantic heterosexual monogamy in what would become Thailand – and yet who himself resisted that type of marriage even while writing plays about romance. I examined the role of the famed German artist Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, as well that of Khun Toc who developed the Babylon sauna in Bangkok in the later part of the 20th century. And I focused on a fourth major character, Stuart Koe, who created a cyber-organizing platform called Fridae in Singapore. In all cases, they used a type of “magical reality” to create a sense of place for the expression of gender and sexual differences – so the book became a narrative non-fiction exploration of how “magical reality” – as a communication process — can be used to create places that serve as LGBTQ homes.

As for my next story: Given the spread of new communication technologies throughout the world – as well as global LGBTQI organizing and backlashes to that organizing – I think I’ll be looking at how we, as now much more public LGBTQI citizens, continue to evolve our understandings of ourselves especially through new media. I don’t think I’ll be writing history about particular bars or even political groups, but rather about the evolving impacts of technology and of concerns about environmental changes in the places we call home.

I’m interested in the next generation’s stories so I’m going to watch – and write – as they make the next history.

Gary Atkins is a Professor at Seattle University in the Women and Gender Studies Program and the Department of Communications. Atkins is also an award-winning journalist specializing in creative non-fiction. He is the author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging and Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber Singapore.

Reckoning with Seattle: Race, Class, and Community in the Emerald City

The historiography of Seattle evades simple classification. Urban historians might ask, why Seattle? What does the city’s history contribute to our understanding of urban planning, housing policy, and the urgent questions surrounding race and policing? Where to locate Seattle within regional and cartographic taxonomies, and their attendant historiographies, is similarly fraught. Indeed Seattle features prominently in scholarship coming out of the fields of Western History, Pacific Northwest History, and Urban History. Similarly, the transnational turn in U.S. history and American Studies has led to new insights that situate Seattle within the larger Asia-Pacific world. Finally, the city offers scholars in the fields of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, African American Studies, and Latina/o and Chicana/o Studies a rich text to examine multiracial an multiethnic solidarities as well as comparative and relational processes of racial formation.

It would be wrong to say my work is firmly grounded in, and ultimately about, Seattle. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to describe my scholarly relationship to the city as Seattle-adjacent. I began graduate school intending to write about the relationship between the city’s Black and Asian residents in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of that research will appear in a forthcoming article for the Pacific Historical Review entitled “Politics in Other Ways: Negotiating Black Power, Radical Politics, and Multiracial Solidarities in Seattle’s Asian American Community.” The article examines the terrain of Black, Asian, and Latino community activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I excavate the ways in which a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities, claiming solidarity across difference to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.

The article opens with Japanese American resident Mike Tagawa’s decision to join the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Tagawa was not the only Asian American to join the Panthers; he was soon joined by Japanese American teenager Guy Kurose and Filipino musician Mike Gillespie.[1] To be sure, Seattle was not the only city in which Asian Americans were either official members of, or close collaborators with, the Black Panther Party.[2] But thanks to the incredible digital repository of documents, oral history interviews, and historical newspapers created by the University of Washington historian James Gregory and his students, robust, granular research of these multiracial and multiethnic encounters is possible. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project is a model for digital humanities projects on its own. It is a collaboration between faculty, archivists and librarians, students, and members of the local community, allowing for first-person narratives from the city’s activist grassroots.

 

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Mike Tagawa, Garfield High School, 1969. Photo credit Eugene Tagawa,
http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm

 

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Richard Aoki via http://www.eugenelim.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/yellow-peril-Black-Power-sign.jpg

At the center of this story is the area in and around the Central District, a four square mile section of the city sitting between downtown Seattle to the west and Lake Washington at its eastern border. In addition to being the center of the Black community, it also sat directly adjacent to the Asian American International District. As was the case with Black neighborhoods and “ethnic enclaves” in cities across the nation, the composition of the region was the result of decades of legal and informal forms of racial housing segregation.[3] But the shared experiences caused by this spatial proximity created the very possibilities for a grassroots multiracial activism poised to challenge both the structures of racial inequality and the limits of racial liberalism. Seattle was not the only city in which residents built multiracial solidarities, of course. But the fact that Black and Asian residents were largely integrated in segregated Central District created opportunities not so easily realized in other cities. Tagawa said of growing up in in the Central District: “It was all good. We all got along. I guess I kind of thought that it was kind of like that every place” and “it was almost like paradise because all the races got along.”[4]

Seattle-as-place is fundamental to this research in another way. In the second half of the 1960s—marked by urban rebellion, the rising influence of Black Power direct-action tactics, and municipal debates about the War on Poverty—cities were at the epicenter of many of the nation’s most urgent debates. Within the national discourse about the so-called “urban crisis,” Seattle leaders made a case for its unique regional identity, couched in a celebratory historical narrative of multiracial and multicultural harmony.[5] In many ways—at least in the public pronouncements of officials and community leaders—it exemplified the post-World War II ideology of racial liberalism, which held that the problems of racial inequality and subjugation were not systemic and could be solved through the palliative effects of political inclusion.[6]

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Roosevelt Hotel sign, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, September 22, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

In a 1967 address to the city council, Mayor J.D. Braman stated that the “social and related problems we have are far, far less critical than those in many other cities.”[7] Edwin Pratt, the Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League (SUL) and a celebrated leader of the city’s Black community also weighed in, telling a Seattle Times reporter in 1966, “Seattle, like San Francisco, has been given a reputation of a cosmopolitan, color-blind racially progressive city.”[8] Such pronouncements from city officials were especially meaningful at a moment of such turbulence in urban centers throughout the nation. In an era of widespread urban rebellion, conflict between municipal officials and residents over the appropriation of War on Poverty funds and programmatic leadership, the rise of Black Power and other radical grassroots formations, and growing national discontent with the Vietnam War, city leaders counted themselves lucky.[9] Indeed in 1967 alone, just one year after Braman and Pratt praised Seattle’s “progressive” racial politics, of the 164 collective disorders between police and urban residents reported by the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, Seattle was conspicuously absent.[10]

My analysis seeks to explicate the possibilities and limits of radical politics under hegemonic conditions of racial liberalism. And here again the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project as well as the records housed at University of Washington Special Collections provide a rich repository of documents, audio recordings, and images that illuminate a multiplicity of voices and disrupt establishment narratives.

In the wake of increasing tension and violence between Central District residents and the police following a number of police shootings of African American men and the arrest of Black Panther chapter head Aaron Dixon and member Curtis Harris ostensibly over stolen office supplies, the response from the established leadership of conservative organizations like the Japanese American Citizens League was often tepid at best. Nevertheless, a growing cadre of younger Black and Asian residents similarly committed to radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist exploitation politics continued to work—purposeful, intentioned dialogue based on an ethic of listening and hearing before speaking—to find common ground. As such, my analysis privileges complexity and contradiction, attending to the process of grassroots activism and politics.

One example in particular shows how these multiracial configurations of community and identity were put into practice. Between 1965 and 1969, local residents organized a monthly community meeting series. The Grass Roots Forum, as it was called, brought together a panel of “experts” and residents to discuss the chosen topic for the month. Crucially however, the largest portion of time was allotted for audience participation. Unlike community meetings initiated by city officials to introduce and discuss municipal programs, the purpose of the Grass Roots series was not immediate policy-making and implementation. Rather, it was meant to be an inclusionary, multiracial, and autonomous space in which the community decided for itself the issues it found most pressing. Topics, which included “The World Revolution of Color” and “Seattle’s Scheduled Race Riot,” offered a snapshot of the most urgent concerns and interests in the Central District area. By creating a space for creative and spontaneous engagement, Grass Roots offered alternatives to the often-stifling political process, and represented what the historian Anthony Macias calls “multicultural urban civility.”[11]

Unlike the frenzied bureaucratic efficiency of City Hall, characterized by cutthroat competition, deadlines, and funding constraints, and in which success and failure was measured strictly by legislation passed and government funds awarded, Grass Roots created space for alternative temporal rhythms and means of participation. At the same time, however, panelists and invited speakers often came from the leadership ranks of established civil rights and civic organizations. Rather than evaluate it according to moderate/radical or establishment/outsider binaries, I consider the Grass Roots Forum series as a contested terrain, one upon which panelists and audience members made competing claims to ownership over the space and its messaging. Inasmuch as the panelists’ words provide insight into the multiple identities and ideologies of Central District residents, the spontaneous disruptions of audience members and the debate they elicited revealed the tangled, nuanced relationship between established leadership and the alternative imaginaries of residents at the grassroots level. At different moments, and in unexpected ways, panelists either quarreled with audience members or departed from the organizational frameworks they represented, claiming solidarity with the radical demands of audience members.

On December 14th 1965 residents convened for a Grass Roots panel entitled, “Should Orientals Become Involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” The urgency of questions surrounding Black and Asian civil rights collaborations was evinced by the large turnout, with the Seattle Times noting over 100 people in attendance,[12] The six-person panel made up a cross-section of prominent members of the Chinese and Japanese community establishment: it included attorneys, architects, business owners, and leaders in Asian civic organizations.[13] While the panel certainly tended towards a middle-class orientation, the discussion that followed evinced the presence of genuine grassroots critique and alternative configurations based on more explicitly anti-racist and working-class orientations.

The panelists all acknowledged a collective hesitancy in the Asian American community to fully embrace and participate in movements for racial justice. They argued however, that their inaction did not reflect a lack of concerns; rather, they blamed the “particular cultural background of Orientals,” which discouraged “demonstrative acts like walking on picket lines or carrying signs.”[14] But Benjamin Woo, a prominent architect and member of a number of local civic organizations stated that this was no longer an acceptable justification for political inaction, and the time had come for leadership and active participation in the civil rights struggle in order to “arouse the citizenry, including the White population, to the same degree of indignation over racial discrimination as would ensue if the city decided to put a garbage dump next door.”[15] Chinese American attorney and active member of the Chinese American civic organization, the Cathay Post, Warren Chan echoed many of the same sentiments when he said in response to the forum’s central question: “Is it possible for a member of a minority group to not be involved?” when they were already involved each time they “walke[d] out into the street, climb[ed] on a bus, or sat down in a restaurant.”[16]

In the discussion that followed, audience members challenged the panelists in spirited and contentious debate. Walter Hundley, the director of the Seattle CORE chapter and who would later become director of the city’s Model Cities Program, argued that complaints from Asian American leaders about the challenges in political organizing were nothing more than a “red herring” meant to “divide and disrupt popular action.”[17] This was met with audible agreement from African Americans in the audience, with one noting the same tensions existed within the Black community between working-class residents of the Central District and middle-class Blacks who they believed to be “too well satisfied with the status quo.”[18] A Seattle Times article about the forum reported that the general sentiments among African American audience members was that the spirit of “defeatism” in the struggle to organize the Asian American community was the real obstacle to multiracial harmony.

Just when it seemed as though the debate had reached an impasse, the respected Japanese American community leader, Reverend Mineo Katagiri, rose to speak. As one of the elder statesmen in the Japanese American community, Katagiri elicited respect from middle-class members of the JACL to the younger generation of activists, many of whom aligned themselves with the working-class orientation of Black Power activists in spite of their own middle-class upbringing. Drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the night, Katagiri addressed Asian Americans in attendance, asking “Are we willing to recognize the leadership of the Negro in the civil rights movement and join with him?”[19] Local Japanese American architect Calvin Takagi followed with his own address to the Nisei. “Recognizing that tomorrow it may be our turn—again,” they had two options: either “play it cool or get in the fight.” The only possible decision, he said, was to get in the fight and build solidarity based not on direct equivalence of experience and circumstance, but on a shared commitment to racial and economic justice.

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Public Market Center, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 4, 2009, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Grass Roots Forum series revealed two often-conflicting political trajectories in the Central District, both of which are central to my broader analysis. On the one hand, their very existence was a testament to the commitment among the established leaders of the area’s Black and Asian communities to build bridges and lines of communication across racial and ethnic lines. Conversely the largely middle-class and integrationist orientation of the panelists exposed the increasing ideological chasm between proponents of liberal integration and those who imagined radical alternatives and resisted co-option by the state.

The extant scholarship on Seattle has made crucial interventions in topics ranging from immigration, working class life and labor, race, gender and sexuality, environmental studies, urban studies, globalization, and popular culture (please see accompanying bibliography here). And yet important and interesting questions and problems remain. The changes to the landscape and the city’s demographic wrought by gentrification and expansion of the tech-economy are certainly worthy of study. The study of sport should also look to Seattle. As American professional sporting leagues increasingly become global commodities explicitly targeting Asian markets, the Seattle Mariners franchise has been a leader in actively scouting and signing Japanese and Korean players, notably the Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. There were also a number of ethnic and racial community sports leagues throughout the twentieth century that may be useful for scholars of sport, Asian American history, and African American history.

Inasmuch as Seattle’s national profile is often based on pithy images of rain-soaked, outdoorsy coffee addicts listening to 1990s alt-rock, scholars have long made a compelling case for the significance and uniqueness of the city and its history. Indeed, Seattle may be uniquely positioned for relevance in the age of globalization, transnational mobilities and identities, and multiracial configurations of urban communities.

Maki Smith is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global and Intercultural Studies (Asian/Asian American Studies) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Smith received his PhD in US History from the University of California, San Diego in 2015, and is currently preparing the manuscript for his first book, Unruly Democracy: Global Movements and the Crisis of Cold War Governance

[1] Aaron Dixon, My People are Rising: Memoirs of a Black Panther Party Captain (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 104.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[3] 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); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Craig Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Mike Tagawa, interview by Janet Jones, 6 June 2005, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/tagawa.htm.

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[5] See Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and 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).

[6] Racism, according to this framework was not structural and deeply embedded in the nation’s institutions and society, but was rather a problem of individual prejudice. As such, racial liberalism brought with it a kind of optimism about the capacity of individuals to overcome their own prejudices through increased understanding and familiarity. Since racism was simply the “bad ideology” of individuals and was contradictory to the fundamental tenets of equality and justice at the heart of national exceptionalist mythology, eradicating it would not require massive structural and institutional readjustments. See Daniel Martinez HoSang, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives in the Making of Postwar California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13-14; Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Peggy Pasco, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 313.

[7] Marshall Kaplan, Gans, and Kahn, The Model Cities Program: The Planning Process in Atlanta, Seattle, and Dayton (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 44-47.

[8] Lane Smith, “Potential Here, Say Rights Leaders: Seattle Not Immune From Race Disturbances,” Seattle Times, 12 October 1966, Box 13, Folder 31, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[9] Indeed, disputes over the degree to which the War on Poverty’s requirement of “maximum feasible participation” granted individual communities autonomy and programmatic authority was one of the principle sources of conflict between government officials and city residents throughout the country. In cities from Oakland, to Detroit, to New York, residents and officials clashed—at times to the point of violence and collective rebellion—over the boundaries between the government’s conception of permissible levels of participation and local demands for community control. See for example Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action During the American Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[10] See National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 113.

[11] Anthony Macias, “Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 56, no. 3 (September 2004), 694.

[12] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[13] They included: Midori Thiel of the JACL; prominent attorney and active member of the Cathay Post, Warren Chan; University of Washington professor of Social Work, Calvin Takagi; architect and active member of the JSCC the Seattle China Club, Benjamin Woo; attorney and member of the Seattle Housing Advisory and JACL, Toru Sakahara; and moderator and JACL chapter vice-president, Fran Wada.

[14] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[15] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[16] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[17] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[18] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.

[19] “Orientals Tell Rights Action Plan,” Seattle Times, 25 December 1965, Box 22, Folder 15, Seattle Urban League Records, University of Washington Special Collections.