By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
What motivates African Americans to continue to fight for their rights and to promote the legacies and contributions of their most prominent of leaders.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday approaches, The Seattle Medium sat down with longtime community activist Eddie Rye, Jr., a local civil rights leader who has been fighting for justice and equality in the state of Washington since the 1960s, to talk about his years of advocacy.
When it comes to preserving the legacy of Dr. King, Rye has been in the center of or played a role in every effort to honor Dr. King in the state. From the naming of a Seattle Public School, which was the first monumental thing to be named after Dr. King in the state, to the naming of a street, the naming of a park, to having Dr. King’s image be part of the official logo of King County, Rye has successfully played the role of agitator, initiator, negotiator, protestor, connector and diplomat in the quest to properly honor Dr. King and instill his principles of freedom, justice and equality into the fiber of Seattle’s culture.
As a symbol of Black consciousness, struggle and triumph, Rye’s name and image seem to be a perfect fit to represent the mindset and goals of African Americans in Seattle and King County. But the success of his efforts did not come without a fight, or the help of others.
When asked about his legacy of activism, Rye says that his life experiences — especially at a young age growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he saw racism and segregation “up close and personal” — are what fuels his passion for change.
“Having the experiences of only being able to drink out of a colored water fountain, discrimination in the military and on the job here in Seattle, and seeing Dr. King at Garfield in 1961 inspired me to overcome obstacles in my activism,” says Rye. “Overcoming racial injustices in America is all that the descendants of Africans have had to do.”
Over the years, Rye was instrumental — along with other Black leaders like Dr. Samuel McKinney, former pastor of the Mt Zion Baptist Church; civil rights activist Charlie James; former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett; Freddie Mae Gautier, civil rights activist, and local Black Media outlets like The Seattle Medium and it’s publisher Chris H. Bennett — in making sure that this part of the country was well aware of the contributions and intentions of the iconic civil rights leader.
Born in Louisiana, Rye’s family migrated to the Pacific Northwest when he was 10. After graduating from high school, Rye went into the military where he became one of the first and youngest Black men to be promoted to the Officer’s Candidate School in Texas.
Rye recalls a couple of experiences that fueled his desire to wake up every morning to speak up for and fight for the dignity and freedom of Black folks.
“[One day while stationed in Texas] I had on my military uniform, and I went up to pay for the movie,” recalls Rye. “As I attempted to pay for the movie, the attendant told me, ‘Hey boy, that uniform don’t make you white and told me to go to the negro window to pay.”
The incident prompted Rye to leave the South. But, even after moving back to Seattle, Rye found himself moved to action due to the insensitivity of America toward Black America’s fallen martyrs.
“I was offered a supervisor in production position during the time of segregation at Boeing,” says Rye. “Even there, after I left the South, I continued to experience racism. The day that Dr. King was murdered a co-worker stated and I quote, ‘M.L. Coon got what he deserved.’ And it took everything I had in me not to come across the desk.”
While Rye was offended by the comment, he was not deterred and chose more meaningful pathways to funnel his energies towards progress and change.
Rye would go on to work with the Central Area Motivation Program, and the Black Student Unions of the local universities and colleges to implement the Great Society Programs initiated by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, that were designed to elevate the Black community. However, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan defunded these initiatives during his administration in a move that once again re-ignited Rye’s passion for activism.
Coinciding with national efforts to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, Rye set his sights on changing the name of Empire Way in Seattle to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. Despite many challenges, Rye and his colleagues were able to prevail after a two-year battle that included two lawsuits, numerous protests, demonstrations and countless life-threatening phone calls. Finally in 1983, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the City of Seattle had the authority to change the name of the street, which paved the way for the official renaming of the street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
A few years later, the King County council approved a motion to rename the county in honor of Dr. King. However, this was not a formal name change and Rye, motivated by former King County councilmembers Ron Sims and Larry Gossett, began forging ahead on formally changing the name of the County, which would take an act of legislation from the State. The journey took six years, but their grassroots efforts finally resulted in Gov. Christine Gregoire signing legislation to formally change the county’s name in honor of Dr. King.
After making headway with naming of the street, Rye and local leaders thought it would be a good idea to have a park named in honor of Dr. King. And in Rye’s mind it would only be appropriate to rename a park located on the same street that carries Dr. King’s name.
“A park should be named after him on the street named after him,” Rye recalls discussing with other community leaders. “With the leadership of Charlie James, other Black leaders as well as advocacy by Morris Alhadeff, Longacres Racetrack former General Manager and Chairman of the Board, the grassy null on the corner of MLK Jr. Way S. and S. Walker St. was transformed into a memorial park in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
While he is adamant about acknowledging the contributions of others, Rye is that sturdy branch of our cultural tree that is deeply rooted in the community. His ongoing efforts in producing tangible results that help make Seattle a better place for everyone is something that he can’t shy away from.
So, what’s next on the agenda for this tireless Civil Rights warrior?
“Voting rights,” proclaims Rye. “If there is going to be a means in which we continue the legacy of Dr. King, not only through memorializing his name, but through action, today’s fight for voting rights is at the top of the priority list.”
“Without voting rights there is no democracy,” continued Rye. “Without voting rights we do not have a voice. The right to vote is the most important legacy left to us by Dr. King.”