When the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination hit Spokane on April 4, 1968, some lashed out in anger.
“Windows Broken at 16 City Firms,” the Spokane Chronicle reported the next day. Rock-throwing vandals smashed shop windows along Third and Fifth avenues downtown.
“It is unfortunate that a small group of people saw fit to copy the actions of small groups of people in other areas,” said Police Chief E.W. Parsons.
Yet this reaction was mild compared with the riots that erupted in Memphis, Washington, D.C., and other cities. It was also mild compared to what was happening in Seattle, where a series of gasoline bombs caused 21 fires, or in Tacoma, where rioters started arson fires and looted shops.
Spokane’s troubles never escalated beyond broken glass, which made it a fitting metaphor for the state of race relations in Spokane in the 1960s: less turbulent than in many parts of the country, but hardly perfect.
In 1968, Spokane’s black population hovered between 1 and 2 percent – as it does today – which gave Spokane somewhat mixed attitudes about race. Spokane never had segregated schools, for instance. Yet the black population was also too small to have much economic and social clout.
Spokane’s NAACP president lamented in the 1950s that Spokane had no black auto mechanics, hotel chefs, bank tellers, meter readers or even elevator operators – much less black doctors or dentists. Most black workers were in custodial, labor and service positions.
By the 1960s, racial discrimination in jobs, housing and social clubs was still common, although attitudes were changing, driven by the national civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
By 1968, Spokane had already experienced some notable civil rights victories. In 1963, a white barber in Spokane refused to cut the hair of a Gonzaga University exchange student from Liberia. The barber said he didn’t “cut colored hair.” This sparked outraged protests, national news coverage and a hearing before the State Board Against Discrimination. The barber lost and closed his shop.
By 1968, most of Spokane’s hotels, restaurants and shops had stopped discriminating – sometimes grudgingly – on the basis of race. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other laws, prohibited it.
Yet the anti-discrimination battle was far from over, especially in the areas of housing, jobs and social clubs. At Spokane’s lodges and private clubs – the pillars of Spokane’s social life at the time – the words “Caucasian-only” were still found on application forms. In 1968, the late Spokane civil rights attorney Carl Maxey filed a federal suit aimed at attempting to end such discrimination.
So progress was on the rise – and then came the news out of Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Jerrelene Williamson, president of the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, vividly remembers that day.
“We were shopping at the Two Swabbies, with all five of our children,” Williamson said. “We were probably shopping for Easter. A black man ran into the store and said. ‘Have you heard? Dr. King has been shot.’ I almost fainted, it disturbed me so much. We just went home and stayed by the TV. It was, ‘What is going to happen to us? Our leader is gone.’ ”
William Gaskins, a receiving manager at the Bon Marche, heard the news at home on TV.
“It was so sad, so devastating,” said Gaskins. “He had done so many wonderful things … not just for African-Americans, but for the whole nation.”
Maxey was in his car when the news came over the radio. The impact was like “a thunderous blow to one’s midsection,” he later said. He didn’t trust himself to keep driving.
“I had to pull over,” he said.
“People were angry, angry, angry,” Williamson said. “Black people were angry – white people, too.”
Some were angry enough to go on a rock-throwing spree – but the leaders of Spokane’s black community urged people keep calm and stay inside. The vast majority did.
Mourners vented their emotions in a number of memorial services, held in both black and white churches throughout the city. Others vented their anger and sorrow in peaceful demonstrations, including a 150-person march through downtown the day after the assassination. Reporters noted that most of the marchers were white college students.
“We Killed King,” read one of the signs.
In addition to anger, there was also fear. Was this the fate of all black leaders, even those dedicated to nonviolence?
Finally, there was the fear that the civil rights movement itself had been dealt a blow.
“We felt that everything would be set back,” Gaskins said.
For some, King’s assassination was a tragic turning point, shattering their idealism. Maxey, a devoted follower of King, became markedly more cynical and bitter, beginning with a statement the day after the assassination.
“It bespeaks the sickness of our nation, and particularly the white community,” Maxey told reporters. “It makes you wonder how many other martyrs black America will have to offer.”
Gaskins, now 88 and retired, said that King’s death did, indeed, deliver a blow to the civil rights moment. Trust was harder to come by; moderates were often drowned out by extremists on either side.
However, as the 1960s and 1970s unfolded, society and attitudes continued to change. In Spokane, that change was symbolized by the election in 1981 of James Chase, Spokane’s first black mayor. He won by a landslide and become one of Spokane’s most popular mayors.
Laws changed, too, and not, of course, just in Spokane. Social clubs dropped their “Caucasian-only” clauses. Jobs and housing slowly began to open up – although even today, plenty of progress remains to be made.
Today, it’s easy to look back and see the broader advances of the civil rights movement. On Tuesday, when a new president is inaugurated, it may even be easier.
“I do believe Dr. King’s assassination did set it back,” said Gaskins. “But we’ve gained a good deal now. It’s certainly not something I thought I would see in my lifetime.”