While African Americans in the southern United States were literally fighting for their lives during the tumultuous 1950s and 60, blacks living in the Pacific Northwest were battling as soldiers in the same war. Granted, the level of extreme violence that erupted in places like Birmingham, Ala., did not quite carry over to this part of the country, but racist laws were on paper and enforced in Northwest cities like Tacoma, making for a more subtle yet equally malicious system that effectively kept blacks from owning homes, going to certain schools, holding political office and securing jobs, among many other things.
The Washington State History Museum (WSHM) takes an in-depth look at the civil rights movement in Tacoma and the individuals who stepped forward to help win equality for African Americans in the Northwest in the exhibit "Tacoma's Civil Rights Struggle: African Americans Leading the Way," which opened Aug. 18.
Focusing on the years 1960-1972, the multi-media exhibit illustrates this history-making period in Tacoma's past through more than 100 photographs, newspaper articles, video clips, memorabilia and first-hand accounts. "I like to think of this as a scrapbook that exploded," commented Redmond J. Barnett, head of exhibits at the museum.
The exhibit opens with a brief look at the World War II era, when Tacoma's black population grew from 650 in 1940 to 3,205 in 1945, a 393 percent increase. From there, it moves through the ensuing decades that brought forth federally-funded programs to further opportunities for blacks; the galvanization of Tacomans to form organizations like Tacoma Urban League in 1968, which helped open jobs to all Tacomans; and into modern times, with a page from the May 9, 1983, edition of the Northwest Dispatch newspaper that features a commentary by Rev. Jesse Jackson headlined "Should a Black Run for President?"
Harold Moss was Tacoma's first African-American mayor and is a contributor to the exhibit. "What I hope for out of this [exhibit] is to open a dialogue for young kids of all colors," he said. "I want them to see that this isn't ancient history. I take joy in living through some of the bad experiences to live out Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream of being judged by character and not color."
On Sept. 7, 3-5 p.m. in the museum's Mount Tahoma Auditorium, the exhibit's companion film "Tacoma Civil Rights Project: Remembering Our Past, Reshaping Our Destiny" will be screened. Produced by award-winning documentary filmmaker Sidney Lee, the film features interviews with 10 participants in Tacoma's civil rights struggle, including Moss. Following the film, Thomas Dixon, president emeritus of Tacoma Urban League, Barbara Johns, WSHM curator and museum consultant, Lyle Quasim, chief of staff for the Pierce County executive and others will hold a panel discussion to talk about their personal efforts toward equal rights and take questions from the audience as well.
"Tacoma's Civil Rights Struggle: African Americans Leading the Way" runs through Dec. 7. For more information, call (800) BE-THERE or visit www.washingtonhistory.org.