Before Nextdoor and Facebook, there was the Seattle Rumor Center
In the late 1960s, Seattle city leaders were anxious to avoid the race riots breaking out in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Detroit.
Rather than focusing on the systemic racism at the heart of such urban uprisings, the city tried to tamp down rumors it imagined were the cause of the violence.
The reality in 1968 was that racial tensions were high in Seattle and across America. That spring they reached a fever pitch with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as riots broke out in more than 100 cities.
That's when Seattle leaders adopted a riot-prevention strategy first used in Chicago the previous year: a so-called rumor control center.
Citizens were asked to call in with rumblings they’d heard, especially things that might foment rebellion, according to Stephen Young, an assistant professor of geography and international studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As the thinking went, "If we know that there is a build-up of divisive rumors somewhere in the city, we can act preemptively and deploy police or welfare agents into that part of the city to, as they would see it, 'cool' racial tensions before a riot broke out," Young said.
Young stumbled upon records from the Seattle Rumor Center when he was working on a very different research project about the Cold War. There had long been concerns that Soviet agents were spreading rumors to incite uprisings in this country.
"This was kind of a spin on that, in this moment of the sort of peak civil rights struggle, where the idea was that there were certain radical or militant black power activists, who themselves might have also had connections with Soviet interests, who were spreading rumors to fan violence in the city," Young said.
Young found the Seattle Rumor Center so interesting that he co-authored a study about it.
The center was privately-run, primarily by white people. It was funded by city and private donations, with collaboration from the police department and other city agencies. Volunteers were trained not only to record rumors, but to refute those they knew to be false.
It didn’t take long for the phones to start ringing.
Operators logged the reports from every call. The log books are archived at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collection.
July 4th, 1968.
9:30 am. Nine police cars in front of T.T. Minor. Feels it is encouraging people to riot and also makes people feel like monkeys in cage.
10:00 am. Heard there were outside agitators involved in disturbance.
10:15 am. Carload of Negroes stared at lady with flag out.
10:20 am. Saw group of black people in Somerset.
Many callers wanted to know whether it was safe to travel through Seattle’s Central District, home to most of the city’s black residents.
Some rumors stemmed from small scuffles that had been exaggerated. A couple kids throwing rocks at cars could become a riot through the grapevine. Other rumors were completely untrue – even paranoid.
5:51 pm. Woman who lives in Highline heard that a group of colored people are going to go through the whole area raping all the white women.
The most insidious rumor over the years was that groups of black men were castrating white men and boys.
Stephen Young said those concerns were ironic.
"We know that through the '40s and '50s and '60s, black people were overwhelmingly the people who were targeted for violence, both by the police, but also through various white neighborhood groups that organized to try and keep black people out of from moving into housing in their communities."
Seattle never did have a riot during the 1960s or '70s.
The Seattle Rumor Center closed after five years due to decreasing call volume and shrinking city budgets.
Young said although it may seem like a relic, parallels to the present day abound – from the spread of fake news to police violence against people of color.
"Even though, in the abstract, it was aimed at keeping the city calm, really it served the interests of the white population, and it took very seriously their anxieties - even as those anxieties, and that unease, was based on fabricated stories and paranoid ideas."
It was those fears that became the focus for government concern and intervention, Young said. "On the other hand, black people, in terms of their anxieties and very credible concerns around experiencing police brutality, or other forms of personal structural violence, weren't really taken seriously.”
Young said even today, tension in a white neighborhood is read very differently from tension in a black neighborhood.
And, he said, governments respond accordingly.
KUOW will bring you more stories about 1968 throughout the year.