Seattle Now & Then: rally for open housing, 1964

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: In an image featured in a journal article by historian Dale Soden, 1,500 open-housing advocates gather March 7, 1964, at the old Westlake Mall after a march from Mount Zion Baptist Church. An open-housing ordinance on the city ballot three days later lost by a more than two-to-one margin. Visible beyond the Monorail tracks are the old Orpheum Theatre and, more distant, the Trailways bus depot. (Harvey Davis, Seattle Post-Intelligencer / Museum of History & Industry)
NOW: Dale Soden chooses a Black Lives Matter sign to stand near the same spot as the 1964 rally. Behind him is today’s Westlake Center, a 4-story shopping center and 25-floor office tower that replaced the old mall in the mid-1980s while the Monorail was slightly truncated and a new Westlake Park stretched to the south. On the old Orpheum site rose today’s Westin Hotel. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 31, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Jan. 3, 2021)

Tracking the role of spiritual leadership in the public square
By Clay Eals

Here’s a New Year’s reflection as newly elected public servants take office this month:

While the First Amendment commands social distancing between government and religion, there’s never been a year they haven’t mixed it up. Indeed, spiritual leaders have long challenged citizens to use free speech and the ballot box for what they see as the public good.

This week’s “Then” photo, looking north at Seattle’s old Westlake Mall, is an apt demonstration. Led by Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clerics, some 1,500 opponents of racist real-estate covenants hoisted a sea of signs on March 7, 1964, to urge voter passage of a city open-housing ordinance.

“Voting against basic rights of men is against the will of God,” the Rev. James Lynch of St. James Cathedral told the crowd beneath the beams of the Monorail, which opened for the World’s Fair two years prior, and in front of the elegant 1927 Orpheum Theatre three years away from its razing.

With opponents stoking fears of “forced” housing, the 1964 measure failed, 115,627 to 54,448. But as vowed at the rally by the Rev. Dr. John Adams, chair of the Central Area Committee for Civil Rights, “We will not be deterred until we have the respect, dignity and freedom we deserve.”

The political tide turned in 1968 when the city council passed an open-housing ordinance whose ban on racial discrimination expanded in 1975 to gender, marital status, sexual orientation and political ideology; in 1979 to age and parental status; in 1986 to creed and disability; and in 1999 to gender identity.

Such issues captivate Dale Soden, a 35-year history professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University. He’s written two books and many articles documenting how religious activism — for good and ill — has shaped Northwest politics. His life’s work earned him the 2019-2020 Robert Gray Medal, the Washington State Historical Society’s highest honor, bestowed last September.

Soden, a white Lutheran, grew up in Bellevue, then nearly all-white. The earliest of his many career influences was his Black sixth-grade teacher at Robinswood Elementary School, the booming-voiced Don Phelps, a later KOMO-TV analyst and community-college chancellor in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Civil rights and Vietnam War protests fueled Soden’s adult direction: “I was always trying to figure out whether Christianity made any difference in how you looked at the world or lived your life.”

Clearly, he believes it has — and should. Though the Northwest is acknowledged as the least-churched region of the country, and while its religious leaders may seem less prominent in the public square than in 1964, Soden says their function “is still potent.”


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are an additional photo, a PowerPoint presentation from the Washington State Historical Society, a video interview of Dale Soden and a historical clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, all of which were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Special thanks to Dale Soden for traveling to Seattle from Spokane to pose for our “Now” photo!

The covers of Dale Soden’s books.
A brief PowerPoint presentation on Dale Soden by the Washington State Historical Society.
Click this photo to see a 12-minute video interview of Dale Soden (Clay Eals)
March 8, 1964, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 77.


4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: rally for open housing, 1964”

    1. Thanks for the comment, David. If we had tried to repeat the photographer’s vantage for the “Then” photo exactly, we would have had to be inside a Westlake Center store, which is why the caption says “near the spot.” An indoors photo of a store display would be inferior because it would convey no sense of place. Anyone trying to gauge the difference in the vantages can spot the common physical element in both photos, which is the then-Frederick & Nelson building (the northerly end of its southwest face), and the present-day Nordstrom (southerly end). I do have to note for you that the “Now” photo is indeed facing due north, as if we were looking straight up Westlake Avenue if Westlake Center weren’t in the way.

      Thanks again for all your help with the column over the decades, David. –Clay

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.