Eddie Rye, Jr. is as much a living historian as he is a community activist.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Rye and his family relocated to Seattle in 1952 when is father, Eddie Rye, Sr., who was a Pullman Car Porter, came to the area as an organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
“You had to be real quiet in them days,” said Rye about organizing and activism among African Americans during that time period. “The only time there was any public persona about that organization was when A. Phillip Randolph came to town then there would be something public.”
While the Pullman Porters were instrumental in the advancement of the African American community across the country, Rye has been equally instrumental in drawing attention to disparities, discrimination, social change and economic justice here in the Pacific Northwest.
For Rye, it’s not about making headlines, it’s about standing up for what you believe in. And while others may shy away from controversy, Rye has endured threats, attacks from the media and made personal sacrifices over the years as he stood on the front lines for social change.
“There’s a whole bunch of discrimination everywhere,” says Rye. “A lot of people just won’t speak up, they’re intimidated. You can’t be successful trying to make change if you’re concerned about personal safety and what people are going to say.”
“I’m not a violent person, I’m a peace loving person,” continued Rye. “But I’m also a justice loving person and sometimes to get justice you have to do extraordinary things.”
Rye took his first principle stand when he was 18 years old. Rye, who was stationed in the National Guard in San Antonio, Texas, had won the proficiency test for being the best soldier in the camp and was on track to go to officers candidacy school and have the military pay his way to college.
However, his vision for serving in the military faltered when he decided to go to a movie in downtown San Antonio on Sunday afternoon. Rye walked up to the ticket booth, put his money down on the counter and the lady in the ticket booth told him he needed to go to the colored window.
“I said ‘I’m not going to no colored window,’” recalled Rye. “I said ‘this here is a United States military [uniform]. She said ‘I don’t care what kind of uniform you have on, you have to go to the colored window.’”
Rye held steadfast to his refusal to purchase a ticket from the colored window and was detained and taken back to the base by the military police where he was later questioned about his actions by the company commander.
“Why’d you do that?” Rye recalled his company commander asking him.
“Because this uniform says that I’m representing the United States of America, it doesn’t say that I’m representing the colored United States of America,” responded Rye.
“You’re a rising star, the military is going to pay your way to college,” said the company commander to Rye.
“I said no, no, no,” Rye replied. “I’m not going to go anywhere where I get treated like this.”
“I’m not going to go to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi or somewhere where I can’t leave the base and be a first class citizen,” said Rye of his decision to not further his career in the military.
According to Rye, that incident coupled with an incident that took place while he was working at Boeing where a White man told Rye, who was letting his hair grow out at the time, ‘Boy you better watch out, you gonna get what that Martin Luther Coon got’ ultimately led Rye into community organizing and activism.
When searching the archives of local news reports its not uncommon to find Rye in the middle of numerous “controversial’ stories. From taking on the banks for redlining, a discriminatory practice used by banks to deny loans to people living in certain areas, to shutting down job sites because they refused to hire Black workers, Rye’s footprint is cemented firmly in the ground. And while he was never alone in these battles for freedom, justice and equality, Rye was often the face of radicalism portrayed by mainstream media as it relates to many of these issues.
“I was the target,” said Rye. “Which I didn’t mind, but there were a lot of people who were in support of these efforts.”
One of the most controversial fights Rye was involved in was the renaming of Empire Way to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. According to Rye, the idea to change the name of the street came as a result of a conversation that he had with Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in town promoting a big march and rally in Washington, D.C. to persuade congress to recognize Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday.
According to Rye, ‘because D.C. was so far away Rev. Jackson suggested that something be done locally’ to honor Dr. King and support the movement for a national holiday. Rye, along with other organizers in the community, responded by coming up with the idea to change the name of Empire Way, which at the time ran through the heart of the African American community, to MLK Way.
At the time, Rye was hosting a radio program on KYAC, a former Black owned radio station in Seattle, and he got the rest of the on-air personalities to start talking about changing the name of Empire Way to MLK. While there was strong support of the effort in the community, local business owners and the mainstream media were adamantly against it.
“Everybody was supporting it, except for the majority media,” said Rye. “Every television station, both newspapers all were opposed to changing the name of the street.”
According to Rye, offers and suggestions were made to them as alternatives to changing the name of the street.
“Why not name a library, why don’t we name a school, why don’t we name a food bank,” Rye recalled as some of the suggestions. “I said [to them] ‘why don’t we do all that and the street.”
The effort was as much a political battle, as it was a social issue. Many African Americans refused to patronize the merchants who chose to oppose the renaming of the street, and despite many of the merchants relying on Black dollars to keep them in business the merchants drew a line in the sand.
“Over 70 percent of the customers of those stores were African American,” said Rye. “Pretty soon those stores started hurting because Black folks stopped doing business with them.”
In 1982, the mayor and city council had signed off on the name change. However, according to Rye, the next month the merchants along the street, who were in opposition to the name change, filed a lawsuit to stop the city from changing the name of the street. The State Supreme Court ultimately settled the case as they ruled that the city had the right to change the name.
Rye was also instrumental in bringing about awareness about Apartheid in South Africa.
One day Rye was watching the news and saw a lot of high profile African Americans like Harry Belafonte and Arthur Ashe going to jail for protesting Apartheid in Washington, D.C. The effort lit a fire in Rye and prompted him to take action locally.
“I said [to myself] wait a minute, we got a South African Consulate right here,” said Rye.
Rye again took action and every Sunday for 18 months Rye and his growing contingent of supporters held a demonstration in front of the South African Consulate in Seattle where someone from the group was symbolically arrested each week.
“It brought education to that affluent Madison Park community because the kids wanted to know why we were out there every Sunday,” said Rye “We had people from every walk of life that was being arrested protesting Apartheid in South Africa.”
In addition, the group was successful in getting government agencies to divest from any companies that were doing business in South Africa, and got many agencies to formally say they would not use goods or services from South Africa.
Over the years, Rye has brought attention to many issues including the impact that I-200, the voter initiative that outlawed Affirmative Action policies in government contracting and college admissions in the state and changing the name of King County to Martin Luther King, Jr. County, but now, at the age of 73, he is focusing his efforts on ‘economic equity for the descendants of slaves.’
According to Rye, between 1986 and 2010 African Americans in the Seattle area have lost over $12 billion in federal funds. These funds were directed at programs that helped establish the framework and foundation for economic growth and the creation of jobs in disadvantaged communities.
“We’ve lost a lot of ground,” says Rye. “That [money] was enough to keep us in the CD and have businesses flourishing and people working.”
“Every time we thought we had a leg up it was taken away from us,” added Rye. “African Americans are doing one tenth of one percent with all the public agencies in this state. We pay taxes, and we are not participating in the construction industry. It’s a rarity to see an African American working anywhere in all the work you see going on. “
Rye believes that it’s time for our political leadership to go to the United Nations and appeal to wealthy nations to do business with us. In addition, he believes that we should be working with international banks to seek economic opportunities.
“We have to change the paradigm,” said Rye. “Instead of waiting on this government to do something for us, we’ve got to be proactive and start reaching outside of this county. We live in a capitalistic society without access to capital, which means permanent underclass.”
There is a process to being a successful community activist. While most people see the headlines and news coverage of demonstrations and protests, Rye is quick to point out that going public is not the first option.
“We try to talk to folks before we do anything publicly,” said Rye. “What I do is send the people the information and let them see it. Sometimes they won’t call you back until we show up. But we try to talk first.”
As it relates to the plight of activism in our community, Rye is encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement, as he sees young people doing some of the same things that young activist were doing over 40 years ago to create social change in our community.
“I get a chance to talk to a lot of younger folks, and I enjoy spending time, sharing information with them,” says Rye. “When I share my story I want to make sure they know the truth about what happened in the Black community in the last four decades.”
Rye says that he is supportive of other groups and their causes, however he is unapologetic for placing his priorities and those of his community ahead of any other.
“I will support what you’re doing but I’m going to be laser focused on economic justice for the descendants of United States slaves,” says Rye. “Because when you’re involved in the economic system you solve a lot of other problems.”