Vigilance on civil rights

The trouble with history is it isn’t yet history. The late Richard Neustadt and Ernie May argued that time “streams,” neither beginning nor ending with a seminal event like the 1963 March on Washington.

As Americans mark the fiftieth anniversary of the march, the temptation is to rattle off post-I-have-dream milestones, from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the 2008 election of an African-American president. But the 1963 march also threw light on economic inequality, a divide that widens by the day. Economic justice, like history itself, can be elusive.

The Pacific Northwest has a mixed, sometimes shameful record. It took until 2011 for the city of Bellingham to apologize for that city’s expulsion of Chinese immigrants in 1885 and 1886. Racism driven by economic uncertainty knits together parts of Washington’s labor narrative.

Everett and Seattle politicians largely supported President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to intern Japanese-Americans during WWII. The war also signaled a demographic shift, as thousands of African-Americans migrated to Washington to work in the aerospace and aluminum industries.

And progressive Seattle? It took until the month before the March on Washington for activists to stage a bona fide sit in. The cause was Mayor Gordon Clinton’s appointment of a 12-member Human Rights Commission with only two African-American members. The commission put an open housing ordinance on the ballot the year after Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” and Seattle voters rejected it two-to-one. Racial discrimination in home sales and rentals was A-okay until the council passed an open housing law in 1968.

In 1977 in Everett, Carl Gipson, a respected city council member, was only one of 67 applicants to be denied membership by the Everett Elks club. Gipson is African American. Progress? Dozens of Elks resigned in protest.

The bad leavened with the good. Few thought twice about electing and re-electing a Chinese-American governor in Gary Locke. In Snohomish county, people of color represent majority-white districts, including Luis Moscoso, Cindy Ryu, Paull Shin, John McCoy and Steve Hobbs.

“Our country has changed,” U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts argued in the court’s 5-4 ruling in June striking down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Time streams — the country has changed — but human nature hasn’t. We don’t live in a “post-racial” society anymore than we live in utopia. Now, more than ever, Washington state needs to pass its Voting Rights Act.

The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

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