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Former WA Governor Dan Evans and the 1960s civil rights struggle

Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans speaks at the dedication of Jefferson Terrace House in Seattle on September 24, 1967; photo by Werner Lenggenhager. (Washington State Archives)

The recent protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd aren’t the first time elected officials in Washington state have been confronted by citizens calling for change for communities of color.

Daniel J. Evans, who served as Washington’s governor from 1965 to 1977, can still recall a particular day more than 50 years ago. On a summer day in 1967, Evans visited Seattle’s Central Area, then the city’s mostly Black neighborhood, to listen to citizens.

In the aftermath, the wheels of state government began turning for a modest, yet meaningful change that many still remember.

Evans is 94 years old. He’s a lifelong Republican, but he’s an old-school Northwest Republican, which means he’s fairly moderate on many issues, and even considered progressive on some, such as protecting the environment.

Evans was elected governor in 1964 and served three consecutive terms. He’s the only person to do that in state history, though Jay Inslee will attempt to match his record later this year.

A Republican governor’s 12-year tenure in now very “blue” Washington is an example of how, in the not-so-distant past, the Evergreen State often had a “split ticket” sensibility, with Democrats and Republicans sharing the spoils in the same statewide elections for governor, the U.S. Senate, and even the White House.

While Evans was governor, Washington also had two powerful Democratic U.S. Senators — Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson. In presidential elections during and bracketing the Evans era, majorities of Washington voters chose Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964; Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968; Republican Richard Nixon in 1972; and Republican Gerald Ford in 1976.

The former governor, who grew up in Seattle, lives in Laurelhurst with his wife. After leaving the governor’s office in 1977, Evans was president of The Evergreen State College, and then was appointed in 1983 by Republican Governor John Spellman to Scoop Jackson’s U.S. Senate seat when Jackson died (and Evans subsequently won a special election to keep the seat, too). He’s been working on his autobiography for many years.

In the late 1960s, Dan Evans was an up-and-coming figure in the national Republican party. In August 1968, he gave the keynote at the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami; he made the cover of Time Magazine; and he was elected that autumn to his second term as governor. However, as a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries, Evans’ national prospects may have dimmed somewhat when Richard M. Nixon won the Republican nomination and ultimately took the White House.

A few days ago, Governor Evans described the visit he made to Seattle’s Central Area on August 2, 1967, where he intended to hear from citizens one-on-one, in a meeting room at the East Madison YMCA.

“I announced that I was willing to go up to the Central Area without an agenda, but just to sit and listen to anybody who wanted to come in and talk to the governor,” Evans said. “I just wanted to, by myself, meet with whoever wanted to come in.”

While staff members waited outside the room, the governor met with individuals to hear their concerns or answer their questions. If appropriate, the visitors were introduced to particular staff members for additional assistance with whatever problem or issue they’d discussed with the state’s leader.

“It was a fascinating day,” Evans said.

Evans says the various meetings with individuals and a few groups went pretty smoothly until right near the end of the day.

“The last group were ushered in, and there were half a dozen African American teenagers,” Evans said. “We sat down, and I greeted each one of them, and then, man, did it start.”

“They just unloaded with all of the problems that they saw in their community, and it got fairly fierce, but I was listening,” he said.

But then, the mood quickly shifted.

“One of the young guys sitting at the other end the table just put up his arm and pointed his forefinger at me with the thumb up and said, ‘Governor, if I had a gun right now, I’d shoot you,’” Evans said. “And he pushed his thumb down as if the gun was going off.”

“I was silent for a few moments, and finally I said, ‘Well, what good would that do?’ [And] he said, ‘Well, [there’d be] one less honky to deal with.’” Evans said. “And with that, the rest of them figured that they had overstayed their welcome.”

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Before they left the East Madison YMCA, Evans invited the group of teenagers to come to Olympia to meet at the Governor’s Office a week later to continue the discussion and focus on solutions.

That follow-up meeting turned out to be a lively two-hour exchange. Toward the end of the session, one of the kids asked a pointed question about the difficulties that Central Area residents faced in accessing public services.

The young man asked, Evans said, “‘Governor, why do we have to take two bus rides in one direction to get to the local health department or two bus rides in the other direction to get to … other services?,” and I said ‘No, that doesn’t make sense. You’re absolutely right.’”

“’So I’ll tell you what we’ll do,’” Evans continued, quickly seizing on a practical way to rapidly make a difference for what was an underserved community. “’We’ll set up an office in the Central Area within 30 days, and we’ll combine our forces so that it would be a one-stop place, I swear. You can come in and all of the services that are appropriate for the community will be in one place.’”

“And 30 days later, we opened,” Evans said.

What came to be known as the Multiservice Center opened in a storefront at 23rd and Jackson on Sept. 11, 1967. According to The Seattle Times, the state agencies represented there included, “Employment Security, Personnel and Public Assistance Departments, the Board Against Discrimination, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the University of Washington.”

Within six months, the footprint of the center tripled, and state agencies were joined by federal and city representatives, furthering the facility’s reach and ensuring it really did live up to its “multiservice” name. The center was in operation in the Central Area for many years.

“I figured that that was one of the better things we did during the time I was governor,” Evans said.

Governor Evans also worked to convince construction unions to open up apprenticeship programs to minorities. Demonstrations and other job actions by Black activists made it clear that this was a critical issue.

“We needed to really find a way to open up opportunity in the construction industry, and the only way we could do that was if we opened up apprenticeship programs to all races,” Evans said. “There were no Blacks in the construction industry in those days.”

Through negotiations with unions and changes to state contracting policies, Evans helped open up those unions to Black apprentices and workers.

The former governor’s recollections of the genesis of the Multiservice Center, as well as his progressive reputation regarding civil rights, are borne out by the recollections of other community members who were active in Seattle in the late 1960s.

Eddie Rye’s family came to Seattle in the early 1950s. He’s been an activist for decades, and is perhaps best known for the successful campaign he led in the early 1980s to rename Empire Way after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rye says that Seattle was a segregated city in the 1960s, with redlining in neighborhoods; jobs and businesses that were off limits to Black people; and police harassment – all the elements of the systemic racism that has been at the forefront in demonstrations and in the national conversation since the death of George Floyd.

In 1968, Rye supported the campaign of Arthur Fletcher for Lieutenant Governor. Fletcher was Black and a Republican, and is considered by some to be “the father of Affirmative Action.” During the 1968 campaign, as Fletcher gave speeches around the state, Rye spent a lot of time around Dan Evans, who also supported Fletcher’s campaign.

Fletcher ultimately lost the election to incumbent Democrat John Cherberg, but Evans made an impression on Rye.

“Dan Evans was committed to being right, fair, and just” in the late 1960s, Rye said. And last year, says Rye, the former governor supported an initiative campaign to restore Affirmative Action in the state.

“[With] I-1000 last year, Dan Evans was one of the co-chairs [working] to bring Affirmative Action back to Washington state,” Rye said.

“So he’s been consistent over the decades,” he added.

Longtime former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett also remembers Evans’ support for civil rights.

In 1968, Gossett was the leader of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington, and organized a famous – and famously effective – occupation of UW President Charles Odegaard’s office on May 20, 1968.

Councilmember Gossett said earlier this week that the Black Student Union had hoped to begin the occupation while Governor Evans was meeting with Odegaard in Odegaard’s office, but it turned out that Evans was elsewhere.

However, Gossett said, “I’m confident that the governor would have been very helpful had he been there because he had shown support for various community improvement projects in the African-American community.”

Gossett remembers the Multiservice Center, and he also remembers Governor Evans supporting efforts to integrate the construction trades.

“For a being a Republican,” Gossett said, “he was pretty progressive and supportive of civil rights, particularly for the African-American community.”

Black Panthers local co-founder Elmer Dixon has a different perspective.

In an email, Dixon said that the Black Panthers didn’t pay attention to elected officials because “we were not civil rights activists, we were revolutionaries and didn’t ask the government for anything.”

Dixon said he had no recollection of the Multiservice Center, but acknowledges “there may have been things Evans did that were progressive and have eluded my memory.”

Evans’ August 1967 visit to the Central Area and the subsequent opening of the Multiservice Center are mentioned in “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era,” UW History Professor Emeritus Dr. Quintard Taylor’s landmark 1994 book about the neighborhood’s history.

Taylor also writes that, unlike City of Seattle officials in those years, Governor Evans “spoke out forcefully” on the issue of open housing. The Seattle City Council finally outlawed discriminatory housing practices by unanimous vote in 1968 on a measure introduced by Sam Smith, who’d been recently elected as the city’s first Black councilmember.

Looking around at the current unrest, Governor Evans sees a major difference.

“The young protesters of that era [the 1960s] knew what they were seeking in a more focused way than the protesters of today,” he wrote in an email.

Both Larry Gossett and Eddie Rye also point to the differences they see in the protests – and protesters – this time.

“We never had the numbers and diversity of people that they have out on the street” in the past several weeks, Gossett said, recalling the mostly Black and fairly small numbers of people who demonstrated for civil rights in Seattle more than 50 years ago. Gossett finds this change encouraging.

Rye is also encouraged by “the outpouring in all 50 states … and Gig Harbor and North Dakota, South Dakota, all 50 states and 18 countries,” where protests have taken place.

Looking back nearly 53 years later, the spirit of the Multiservice Center was summed up best by a question a community member asked Governor Evans at the formal dedication event held a few months after the center had opened.

“During that gathering, one woman came up to me and said, in about seven words, she had it locked in,” Evans recalled. “She said, ‘Governor, how do you like our center?’”

“The fact that she used the word ‘our’ – instead of ‘your,’ or ‘the state’s,’ or some other thing,” Evans said, “that made the whole thing worthwhile, because that’s how people ought to be thinking about their government.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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