In 2018, Political Activism Gives Reason For Hope, Just As It Did in 1968

Times were grim in Seattle and the country 50 years ago. But there was reason for hope then, just as there is now.

By Knute Berger

1-gray-matters

March 22, 2018

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Seattle Magazine.

This article appears in print in the April 2018 issueClick here to subscribe.

When T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, he could have been writing about the spring of 1968.

Fifty years ago, America felt like it was coming apart at the seams. The incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was unpopular and had announced that he would not run for reelection. Protests over the war in Vietnam surged. Racial violence had wracked inner cities across the country. Hardline Republicans like Richard Nixon promised to restore “law and order” while segregationist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace ran a presidential campaign based on racial division.

My parents, who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, kept telling me, “These are historic times.” 

On April 4, the historic times got even worse. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis. The civil rights leader preached love and peaceful protest. When he died, the world shifted on its axis. Mine shifted, too.

I was attending Asa Mercer Junior High on Beacon Hill that spring 50 years ago. I was 14 years old. Mercer was a racially mixed school with large percentages of African-American and Asian-American kids. It had all the characteristics of a troubled inner-city school: violence, vandalism, apathy. I remember my seventh-grade language arts teacher, Miss Diama, reading Up the Down Staircase, the best-selling novel by Bel Kaufman about the trials of a language arts teacher in an inner-city school. I remember days when Miss Diama fled our classroom in tears, frustrated by unruly students who refused to learn or listen. 

Racial tensions were rife. Black and white students, who might have been friends in grade school two years before, could hardly be seen socializing. Junior high students are clique oriented, but a racial wall had gone up, too.

The administrators of the school tried to keep order by doling out “swats” with hard wooden paddles and appointing some of the worst bullies as “hall monitors” with almost free rein to harass kids at will. It was an environment where it was easy to lose your lunch money, and your mind. 

Racial tensions were high too at nearby Franklin High School, where students protested the unfair treatment of two black students disciplined in an altercation. They held one of the first Seattle high school sit-ins. Several young civil rights leaders, including Larry Gossett—now a King County Council member—were arrested for their role in the protests. Gossett was a Franklin grad and head of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington. He’d been a friend of my eldest sister in high school. We lived across the street from Franklin, so the turmoil was literally at our front door.

I remember the eruption of pain and anger after King’s assassination—which happened the day Gossett and his fellow sit-in organizers were arrested by Seattle police. There were other school protests and walkouts. There were assemblies and public expressions of grief. There were cries that white Seattle had to finally do something about civil rights. A few weeks after King’s killing, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance banning racial discrimination in housing—a measure that had been turned down by voters by 2 to 1 only four years earlier.

The gulf between black and white students at Asa Mercer got bigger. One day that spring, while walking home from school near Jefferson Park, I was beaten by a group of black students because I was white.

I didn’t resist, fearing the beating would be worse if I did. I was helped afterward by another black student, someone I knew who happened by. I walked home with a large goose egg on my forehead. I was angry at being singled out—but I also felt that I understood some of that anger. I knew they were beating me as an expression of something that was deeply wrong. 

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