By Rev. Paul Beeman, former lobbyist, Des Moines WA
It had been more than a decade since President Truman ended segregation in the armed forces; ten years since the “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision legally ended segregation in public schools; and just a year since Martin Luther King had proclaimed, “I Have a Dream.” It was within months of the bombing of a black church that murdered four girls in their Sunday School. Perhaps prejudice was not that extreme in Seattle, yet segregation was rampant. While Seattle banks could not legally restrict neighborhoods to “white-only non-Jewish” families, they were demanding extortionist prices from black families for homes and home loans. It was legal, it was wrong, it was called “redlining.”
The Washington State Council of Churches desperately wanted a more public voice demanding state-wide racial equality. By 1964, Council members decided that placing their own lobbyist in the Legislature could be an effective influence. At the time, I was the director of public relations for the Methodist denomination in Washington State. Our bishop and Methodist leaders agreed to lend me to the state Council of Churches in 1965 to be their first professional lobbyist.
My first step was to seek the priority of issues that concerned denominational leaders. Second, was to meet state officials, legislators and other lobbyists. Surprisingly, the Catholic Diocese representative became one of my closest colleagues. Third, and as my most public action, I issued a one-page weekly review of legislative issues and accomplishments, called Alert. It was printed in the Council office in Seattle and mailed free to denominational leaders and all others who requested it. When a truly grave issue arose that was of special concerns to churches, and called for letters or phone calls, for or against, my publication became a Red Alert.
Early in the session I set up a legislative training event in Olympia, which was popular with church activists across the state, those interested in learning how state government works and in meeting legislators and state officials. I also sent regular communiques to newspapers state-wide, highlighting major issues of concern to churches.
My most publicized events were two large, public demonstrations and marches I organized for “Open Housing.” One was in Seattle, from the Space Needle to the Federal Building, covered well by the PI and Times. The second was in Olympia, from the United Churches to the Legislative (Capitol) Building lobby. It happened that a Life Magazine photo-journalist was in Olympia, doing a story on American government. He wrote a fine piece on our program and published two photos of our march and demonstration. (See Life World Library, The United States, pp 58, 62, including our photo).
Was the Church Council’s lobbying program of value? Perhaps questionable, if taken alone. But it was one of dozens of powerful voices, and ours a deeply spiritual one, demanding racial equality in open housing.
Were there visible results? In June, 1965, the Seattle Real Estate Board issued a statement of principle, that member realtors should show all listings without discrimination. However, it was not until April, 1968, three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, that the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the showing, sale or rental of housing. Our voices had been heard!
Today, more than 50 years later, church councils can still take pride in their historic witness for justice in the Washington State Legislature.