Tacoma held it together after MLK's death. Racial strife exploded a year later

About 1,000 marchers paid tribute to the memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a silent march that led to the steps of the County-City Building on April 7, 1968. King had been assassinated in Memphis three days before.
About 1,000 marchers paid tribute to the memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a silent march that led to the steps of the County-City Building on April 7, 1968. King had been assassinated in Memphis three days before. Courtesy

Tacoma escaped the violence and rioting that wracked other parts of the country in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.

A city police official told The News Tribune that the night of April 4, 1968, "was one of the quietest nights ever."

Maybe it was shock that kept Tacoma residents in check. Maybe it was the calls for calm by city leaders, including the Rev. E.S. Brazill, a personal acquaintance of King. Maybe it was the lingering stain of the anti-Chinese riots of 1885.

Whatever the reason, the City of Destiny was relatively quiet as other U.S. cities burned.

"Absolutely no trouble overnight," the police official told reporter Rod Cardwell for a story published in the April 5, 1968, editions. "In fact, crime in general was off."

Trouble was coming, though. It just took a year to arrive.

On Mother's Day 1969, simmering racial tensions erupted into a disturbance described by the website blackpast.org as "a night of angry, youthful confrontation and property destruction, the shooting of a policeman, and charges of alleged police brutality."

April 4, 1968

As news of King's death in Memphis spread through Tacoma, city leaders, both black and white, expressed shock and sadness and asked residents to remain calm.

"If we will carry forth the spirit of non-violence, his death will not have been in vain," said Brazill, leader of Shiloh Baptist Church and a longtime advocate for civil rights reform in Tacoma.

Mayor A.L. Rasmussen echoed those sentiments.

"The senseless and shocking killings of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln point up the need for a calm and reasonable approach by all citizens to the problems of the country in the days ahead," Cardwell quoted Rasmussen as saying. "I call on all the people of Tacoma to settle our differences through discussions."

Schools both public and private dismissed classes early, and, according to Cardwell's account, "Flags were flying at half-staff throughout the city — even before proclamations to lower the flags were issued by President Johnson and Gov. (Dan) Evans."

The Tacoma Ministerial Alliance quickly organized a memorial service to honor King for the following Saturday at noon at St. John's Baptist Church on South J Street.

"The Rev. J.A. Boles, alliance president, urged a great public attendance," Cardwell reported.

More than 1,000 people heeded Boles' call, according to historylink.org, a website that curates Washington state history.

They marched from St. John's to the County-City Building, "sang hymns and protest songs, and listened to local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Frank Russell deplore the 'sickness that has resulted in the killings of national leaders ...'" the website reported in an essay on the aftermath of King's death.

Russell went on to call on "the city council to adopt an open housing ordinance and to resolve the racial imbalance in Tacoma schools," according to the historylink.org essay.

Jack Tanner, a local African-American attorney who went on to become a federal judge, sounded a note of pessimism on the day of King's death, according to Cardwell's story.

"The president has just called on all Americans to remain calm, but I think it will be a miracle if this thing does not result in trouble all across the country," Tanner said.

In the ensuing days, riots broke out in several cities, including Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Kansas City; and Detroit.

Mother's Day riot

The "trouble" Tanner predicted did not come to Tacoma until May 11, 1969.

The website blackpast.org called the events of that day "the turning point" in Tacoma's civil-rights struggle.

"While Tacoma in the 1960s did not experience the violence that enflamed many northern cities," historian Barbara Johns said in post on the site, "the Mother's Day disturbance in the Hilltop community ... bore the seeds of similar frustration — a black population concentrated by residential discrimination in a deteriorating inner city neighborhood, the lack of economic opportunity and political representation, and the gulf between the promise of equal rights and the daily reality of black life."

"On Mother's Day, 1969, the fuse blew."

The triggering event was the attempted arrest by Tacoma police of an African-American woman being sought on a warrant, according to an account of the disturbance printed in the next day's editions of The News Tribune. The arrest drew the attention of nearby residents, some of whom might have been upset after the woman said she'd been hurt by police.

Mayhem followed.

Windows were smashed, nearly three dozen people were arrested and a police officer responding to the fracas was badly wounded by gunfire, The News Tribune reported.

"The moderating influence of several African Americans who would emerge as city leaders helped contain the rioting to a single night of violence," Johns wrote. "These leaders included Thomas Dixon, executive director of Tacoma Urban League; Harold Moss, who would become Tacoma's first black mayor in 1994; and James L. Walton, who would become Tacoma's first black city manager in 2003."

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 @TNTadam