Seattle’s long-ago battle to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Apr 4, 2018, 6:18 AM | Updated: Jan 18, 2021, 5:15 am
LISTEN: Seattle’s long-ago battle to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s fairly well known around Washington state that King County is named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, when it was originally named back in 1852, what’s now the State of Washington was part of Oregon Territory, and the county’s namesake was William Rufus DeVane King. King was sworn in as vice president in Cuba and only made it as far as Mobile, Alabama before he died six weeks later in 1853. King’s running mate in the election of 1852 had been, you guessed it, Franklin Pierce.

The process of re-dedicating King County to Dr. King began in the mid-1980s, and it was controversial. It took many years, and it took the efforts of the King County Council and State Senator Adam Kline before it became official in 2005.

What’s not so well known nowadays is that a few years before the King County re-dedication efforts began, a group of local activists worked to change the name of a major thoroughfare through Seattle in honor of Dr. King.

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The street was Empire Way, stretching from Madison Street south through the Central Area, the Rainier Valley and the west side of Beacon Hill all the way to the city limits. Sound Transit light rail now runs down the center of the street from Rainier Avenue several miles south on its route to Sea-Tac Airport.

Seattle’s Empire Way

The southern portion of Empire Way, beginning at Dearborn Street, was first mapped out by the city in 1913 as a major north-south thoroughfare parallel to Rainier Avenue. One theory is that creation of the parallel route may have been seen as a way to dilute the power of the private company that owned the streetcar line along Rainier Avenue and that wouldn’t sell out to a larger firm that was consolidating many of the other private lines in the city in those years. It was a rough and tumble time, particularly in the field of transportation and real estate speculation.

Some accounts from recent decades say the street was named in honor of “Empire Builder” James J. Hill, the Great Northern Railway magnate whose links with the Pacific Northwest and Seattle helped build the region and the city. Hill spoke at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and apparently made quite an impression; a statue of him still stands on the UW campus where that fair was held.

Northern portions of Empire Way, from Dearborn to Madison, were created in the 1930s, though Montlake residents successfully stopped attempts by the city to push Empire Way through the Washington Park neighborhood to connect with the Montlake Bridge.

There are many twists and turns in the history of Empire Way, and the street had its name changed once before back in 1961, when plans called for the “R.H. Thomson Parkway” (aka “Thomson Expressway”) to follow the route of Empire Way from Highway 520 to what’s now Interstate 90. Much like they did in the 1930s, Montlake activists again shut down the city’s plans to bisect their neighborhood, and the name “Empire Way” came back.

Fast forward a few decades, and this time, it was an activist from the Central Area who led the effort to change the name of Empire Way to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Eddie Rye is 75 years old and still very active in the community, and still working as a consultant. His dad was a Pullman porter, and the family moved to Seattle in 1952 from Shreveport, Louisiana when Eddie was 10 years old. He grew up in the Central District and has witnessed much change in the old neighborhood.

Earlier this week, Rye stopped at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and Cherry Street. He shared his memories of being in Seattle on the day that Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago in Memphis, and described how the name changing effort began one night just a dozen years later.

Eddie Rye’s name-changing campaign

It was November 1980 when Eddie Rye was hosting a radio program on KYAC, and Jesse Jackson was his in-studio guest.

“During the interview, Reverend Jackson indicated that Stevie Wonder was having a huge event on January 15, 1981, to demand that Congress make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday,” Rye said. “And since we were so far removed from Washington, DC geographically, Reverend Jackson suggested that many cities were having various things done in Dr. King’s honor. [With] this push to have Dr. King’s birthday become a national holiday, it was more important for people to do things locally to keep pressure on Congress.”

Eddie Rye organized a campaign to get the City of Seattle to change the name of Empire Way. His group ran into opposition from people in the community who thought it would be better to name a library or a school or even the Kingdome after Dr. King. In May 1981, the Seattle Board of Public Works, the part of the city that made decisions on street names, suggested a compromise of renaming just a several-block portion of Empire Way.

But Rye found allies on the Seattle City Council in George Benson and Sam Smith, and the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance in July 1982 renaming all eight miles from Madison Street to the city limits. Mayor Charles Royer signed it on July 29, 1982.

Opposition from Seattle businesses

But then, a group of merchants along Empire Way, mostly south of Rainier Avenue, filed a lawsuit to stop the renaming of the street. It shut down the process. So Eddie Rye’s group organized a boycott of some of the businesses.

They also made their own “Martin Luther King, Jr. Way” signs and did a guerrilla installation project one weekend in late 1982 or early 1983.

“One Saturday, a group of folks made some signs up and I think we put ‘em up probably from Union all the way down to Yesler,” Rye said. “They were made just exactly like the street signs. It was windy and rainy and it was a mess, [and] I refused to climb that high up on the ladder, too.”

Eddie Rye says that the group of merchants who filed the suit claimed only fiscal reasons for their opposition to renaming Empire Way.

But Rye was skeptical.

“So they were going, ‘We have to change our letterhead,’” Rye said. “How much letterhead does a second-hand store or a pizza shop [need]?”

Asked if there was some other motive for the merchants’ lawsuit, Rye paused.

“We know what it was,” he said.

Pressed further, Rye answered, “It was racism, that’s what it was.”

In the early 1980s, Rye says, more overt forms of racism were a thing of the very recent past in Seattle.

“It’d been a few years since blacks could try on clothes [at department stores] in downtown Seattle . . . [or work] certain jobs, [or be] able to go to certain restaurants,” Rye said.

And Eddie Rye says racism is still a factor here, in that African Americans are still being treated unfairly because of realities such as Initiative 200 — and how it banned racial and gender preference in the granting of state contracts and enrollment in state universities. He calls the effects of these changes a kind of “economic apartheid.”

The lead plaintiff in the Empire Way merchants’ suit against the city was a man named Don Heider, who owned a store called Four Star Lumber. The business was sold many years ago, and Don Heider passed away in 1990. His son John, who also worked in the family business with his father, now lives in Idaho.

Does John Heider think that long-ago lawsuit against the street re-naming stemmed from racism?

“No, no, not with the people that were supporting with my father,” John Heider said, though he acknowledges there was prejudice and resentment in the community at that time. “[The lawsuit] was strictly a business recognition and financial burden that they were feeling, that they were going to have to unnecessarily at that time shoulder.”

Along with prejudice and resentment, the early 1980s were also a time of economic recession and tepid recovery.

“I remember at that time, times were tight,” Heider said. “And nobody needed the additional expenses of maintaining legal documents, letterhead, signage things like that.”

“We never could afford to repaint our trucks at the time to change it all before we ended up selling the business off,” Heider said. “We never did make any changes. They all stayed the same.”

But more than three decades later, things aren’t the same, and it’s hard to find any physical reminders of Empire Way. An informal survey of the entire length of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way earlier this week turned up only one remaining “Empire Way” reference still visible, on a tall sign for a private shopping center just north of South Graham Street.

Mayor Charley Royer recalls the name change

Charley Royer served three terms as mayor of Seattle, including during the time of the re-naming of Empire Way.

Royer says that the names we choose to attach to our public places matter.

“Oh, it does. It really does, it really does,” Royer said by phone on Monday.

“I had several of those when I was in office. One was the re-naming of SeaTac [by the Port of Seattle] as the Henry M. Jackson International Airport. Tacoma took umbrage at that. It was like a sharp stick in the eye of people from Tacoma,” Royer said.

Long-standing Tacoma-versus-Seattle “city envy” is one thing, but does Charley Royer think racism was involved in the opposition to the re-naming Martin Luther King, Jr. Way?

“I think there was a hint of that, [but] I don’t think it was the dominant factor. I think more of a factor was just like what’s going on in Seattle now,” Royer said. “Dramatic change, and a lot of people who don’t look like your old neighbors in your old neighborhood.”

Royer also says he admires Eddie Rye’s energetic commitment to the cause, but that this sometimes could backfire.

“He could be a little sharp-edged,” Royer said. “[He’s a] very smart guy and a good guy, I think. He was young and pretty aggressive and he could rub you the wrong way. So I think that was part of the problem for some merchants out on Empire Way who didn’t like the expense [of new signage] and thought it was a waste of money on the city’s part.”

Royer says the businesses had a point about potential financial impacts, but that the outcome of the dispute ultimately worked out for the best.

“There were a lot of very small businesses out there, and it was a very different time the 1980s from the 2000s and small businesses, a lot of the minority-owned, were kind of struggling. So they had a legitimate concern, but I think cooler heads prevailed and I think it turned out fine,” Royer said. “I don’t know that anybody paid much attention after [the name change was made], and almost every city in the country has got a Martin Luther King, Jr. Way now, so it was kind of a national thing.”

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The ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court came down on November 30, 1983. The name change could now proceed, and the signs – 217 of them, according to one media account at the time – started going up the very next day. The first one was installed above Cherry Street.

Hopeful for the future

And it was at Cherry Street and MLK, Jr. Way the other morning where Eddie Rye spoke near a mural of Dr. King and lamented how few African Americans still live in the Central Area. Changing demographics are another example, Rye says, of the “economic apartheid” that’s driving lower-income people, including African Americans, out of Seattle.

But, regardless of the demographic shifts along what used to be Empire Way, Rye is still proud of what he and his group accomplished 35 years ago.

“I can say ‘Thank God it was done,’ and say the same thing about the county [re-dedication],” Rye said. “We have the only municipality in the country named for Martin Luther King, Jr. up in the remote Northwest.”

And in spite of the other challenges facing the city and the country, Eddie Rye remains hopeful about the future.

“If you don’t have hope you die … so I definitely have hope,” Rye said. “As long as I have energy I have hope because I know change begins with me. I’m not the kind of person to go around and try and do a study or a poll, [and ask] ‘Do you think we should do this?’ If it’s wrong, and something needs to be done about it or said about it, I have no problems with doing that.”

What better tribute could there be to Dr. King here in King County?

Eddie Rye, Jr. will be taking part in a ceremony and special program commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. beginning at 6 p.m. at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Wednesday, April 4.

The church is on Madison Street, about eight blocks west of the northern end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

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Seattle’s long-ago battle to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.