By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
What motivates African Americans to continue to fight for their rights and promote the legacy and contributions of their most distinguished leaders.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vacation approaches, The Seattle Medium spoke with longtime community activist Eddie Rye, Jr., a local civil rights leader who fights for justice and justice. equality in Washington State since the 1960s. , to talk about his years of advocacy.
When it comes to preserving Dr. King’s legacy, Rye has been central to or played a role in all efforts to honor Dr. King in the state. From the naming of a Seattle public school, which was the first monumental thing to bear Dr. King’s name in the state, to the naming of a street, to the naming of a park, to the he image of Dr. King as part of the official King County logo, Rye successfully served as agitator, initiator, negotiator, protester, connector and diplomat in the quest to properly honor the Dr. King and instilling his principles of freedom, justice and equality into the fiber of Seattle culture.
As a symbol of black consciousness, struggle and triumph, Rye’s name and image seem to be perfectly suited to represent the mindset and goals of African Americans in Seattle and the county. of King. But the success of his efforts did not come without a fight or without the help of others.
Asked about his activism legacy, Rye says his life experiences — particularly at a young age growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he saw racism and segregation “up close and personal” — are what fuel his passion for change.
“Having the experience of only being able to drink from a colored water fountain, discrimination in the military and at work here in Seattle, and seeing Dr. King in Garfield in 1961 inspired me to overcome obstacles in my activism,” Rye says. “Overcoming racial injustice in America is all African descendants have had to do.”
Over the years, Rye has been instrumental – alongside other black leaders like Dr. Samuel McKinney, former pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church; civil rights activist Charlie James; former King County Councilman Larry Gossett; Civil rights activist Freddie Mae Gautier, and local black outlets like The Seattle Medium and its publisher Chris H. Bennett — to make sure this part of the country was well aware of the iconic civil rights leader’s contributions and intentions.
Born in Louisiana, Rye’s family migrated to the Pacific Northwest when he was 10 years old. After graduating from high school, Rye entered the military where he became one of the first and youngest black men to be promoted to Officer Candidate School in Texas.
Rye recalls a few experiences that fueled his desire to wake up every morning to defend and fight for black dignity and freedom.
“[One day while stationed in Texas] I had my military uniform on and went upstairs to pay for the movie,” Rye recalls. “As I was trying to pay for the movie, the attendant said, ‘Hey boy, that uniform doesn’t make you white, and told me to go to the nigger window to pay.
The incident prompted Rye to leave the South. But, even after returning to Seattle, Rye found himself spurred into action by America’s callousness toward black America’s fallen martyrs.
“I was offered a production supervisor during the segregation period at Boeing,” says Rye. “Even there, after leaving the South, I continued to experience racism. On the day Dr. King was murdered, a colleague said, and I quote: “ML Coon got what he deserved. And it took everything I had in me not to fall on the desk.
Although Rye was offended by the comment, he was undeterred and chose more meaningful paths to channel his energies toward progress and change.
Rye would continue to work with the Central Area Incentive Program and local university and college Black student unions to implement the Great Society programs initiated by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, which were designed to elevate the black community. However, former US President Ronald Reagan canceled funding for these initiatives during his administration in a move that once again reignited Rye’s passion for activism.
Coinciding with national efforts to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, Rye decided to change the name of Empire Way in Seattle to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. Despite many challenges, Rye and his colleagues prevailed after a two-year battle that included two trials, numerous protests, demonstrations and countless potentially deadly phone calls. Finally, in 1983, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the City of Seattle had the power to change the street’s name, which paved the way for the street’s official name to be changed to Martin Luther King. , Jr. Way.
A few years later, King County Council approved a motion to rename the county in honor of Dr. King. However, it was not an official name change and Rye, prompted by former King County Council members Ron Sims and Larry Gossett, began to move forward with officially changing the name of the county, which which would take an act of state legislation. The trip took six years, but their local efforts eventually resulted in Governor Christine Gregoire signing legislation to officially change the county’s name in honor of Dr. King.
After making progress with the naming of the street, Rye and local leaders thought it would be a good idea to have a park named after Dr. King. And in Rye’s mind, it would be only fitting to rename a park on the same street named after Dr. King.
“A park should bear its name on the street that bears its name,” Rye recalls while chatting with other community leaders. “With the leadership of Charlie James, other black leaders as well as the advocacy of Morris Alhadeff, former General Manager and Chairman of the Board of Longacres Racetrack, the grassy draw on the corner of MLK Jr. Way S. and S. Walker St. was being turned into a memorial park honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Although he is committed to recognizing the contributions of others, Rye is that strong branch of our cultural tree that is deeply rooted in the community. His ongoing efforts to produce tangible results that help make Seattle a better place for everyone is something he can’t shy away from.
So what’s next on the agenda of this tireless civil rights warrior?
“Right to vote,” proclaims Rye. “If there is to be a way in which we continue the legacy of Dr. King, not just by commemorating his name, but through action, today’s fight for the right to vote is at the top of the list. priorities.”
“Without the right to vote, there is no democracy,” Rye continued. “Without the right to vote, we have no voice. The right to vote is Dr. King’s most important legacy.