By Garrin Hertel
“I stand on the shoulders of my parents. They pulled me up, encouraged me, prayed for me, and pushed me. They were my foundation. Their love was constant and without qualification.” ~ Ron Sims
Pictured above, James and Lydia Sims, who often alternated as presidents of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Many Washington residents may recognize Ron Sims as former King County Executive, serving from 1996 to 2009. However, Ronald Cordell Sims was born in Spokane, WA in 1948, to Rev. James and Lydia Sims, and lived much of his childhood in Spokane’s east central neighborhood. His parents were driven people, passionate about education and excellence. They settled in Spokane after his father completed his military service at nearby Fairchild Airforce Base following World War II. Although Ron Sims was formally educated at Central Washington University, he credits his parents for shaping his character and providing him with a solid foundation for the career of public service that would bring his family legacy full circle.
James and Lydia Sims, who alternated years serving as President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, not only exemplified an ethos of persistent struggle for equal rights, they also brought Ron along on marches and demonstrations, teaching him to function in the face of conflict without losing his humanity. In 1960, when the Sims led a protest outside the Bon Marche with family friend, Carl Maxey, they marched for the rights of blacks to participate equally as cashiers and clerks. Ron went along, holding signs with his parents on the sidewalk outside. A man walking by spit on Ron, age 12 at the time, and young Ron gave in to emotion and struck the man with his sign. He recalls that his father corrected him: “We never fall to the level of those who insult us.” However, anger didn’t just come from people passing by on the street. A black woman emerged from the Bon Marche, and criticized the protest saying, “You’re going to get us all in trouble.” Again, James Sims offered his son wisdom about fear and the pressure of internalized oppression: “You have to go out on a limb to get to the fruit.”
The history of the march outside the Bon Marche often accompanies biographical sketches about Ron in other publications such as The Spokesman-Review, and online at HistoryLink.org. Ron has reminisced publicly about the time his 5th grade teacher sent a message home to his parents, telling them to behave. His parents responded by picketing the school. These events and others like them set the stage for Ron Sims’ coming of age, the moment he would step forward with his own ideas and initiative, and make a difference with his own strategies. That opportunity came during the summer of 1967, during The Liberty Park Affair, a lesser known event, but no less important for Ron’s development and character.
At the time, just after his freshman year of college, Ron served as the Park Manager for Liberty Park, working for the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department. As is so often the case in any thriving city, freeway systems often catalyze change, not just to the landscape and the flow of commerce, but in the culture of a region as well. For travelers heading west into Spokane on the old Appleway highway, Liberty Park gated the eastern edge of town. The 21 acre park had a pond and pool, ball fields, and a promenade, the ruins of which still sit on a hillside overlooking the freeway. The property of Liberty Park also happened to be the ideal location for Interstate 90’s express lanes to usher higher speed traffic through Spokane’s downtown core. Eighteen acres of Liberty Park were to be sold to the Federal Government, and the Southeast neighborhood, one of Spokane’s most diverse, would be forever divided in two.
After the gains made by minorities during the 1964 elections, and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of that same year, the national focus of the movement shifted from the fight for legal recognition of rights to the fight for cultural and economic equality. Spokane followed suit, and James and Lydia Sims stood in the thick of the local movement. The Spokesman-Review of June 1967 reported that REACH (Residents of the East Area Combined to Help), led by the Rev. James Sims, sought several improvements, not just to the east side neighborhoods in general, but specifically to Liberty Park. About the swimming pool, James Sims said, “It is impossible to keep the water heated. The water leaks out overnight and is replaced by cold water.” The Spokesman reported further that, “Park officials have admitted the pool is virtually beyond repair.” But even more importantly, REACH sought assistance from the city to have a signal light installed at the intersection of Second Avenue and Perry. James Sims noted that parents of children north of the freeway had stopped allowing their children to use the park because of heavy traffic.
As a young man responsible for the operations and safety of Liberty Park that summer, Ron witnessed even more challenges. Not only were there children attempting to brave uncontrolled intersections and crossing freeway on-ramps to gain access to the park, but other signs of corruption plagued the neighborhood, including prostitution, which often went ignored by local law enforcement.
As a city employee, Ron sometimes gained access to planning decisions before they were executed. With the sale of 18 acres of Liberty Park property to the Federal Government, funding for neighborhood investments seemed like a foregone conclusion. But city officials had other plans. Both Manito and Comstock parks, which sit in the very wealthy South Hill neighborhoods of Spokane, were slated to receive most of the funding. This brought the young radical to his feet. As if that wasn’t enough, a young boy crossing a freeway on-ramp on his way to the park was struck by a car. Ron devised a plan so brash and bold his father would later call him “a crazy genius.”
The plan was simple: organize a march by a group of hundreds of pedestrians to clog the crosswalks on the freeway on-ramps at rush hour. To protect the pedestrians, Ron recruited friends with muscle cars to drive back and forth parallel to the march. It was completely legal: the pedestrians had the right of way, and the marchers would completely block traffic during the busiest time of day.
News of the protest spread, and it soon reached the mayor’s office. Eventually, James Sims received a call from a panicked mayor: “You tell your son to stop. Someone might hurt him.”
Not without annoyance, James Sims called his son to find out what ruckus he had conjured. After a year of college leading up to one of the most tumultuous years in our nation’s history, Ron remembers that he had adopted an attitude, grown out his hair, and in this enthusiasm, hadn’t fully recognized the value of his father’s methods. Moreover, he hadn’t told his father what he was up to. After calming the tempest, James told his son to hold off. But he didn’t tell him to stop the protest.
A community meeting was called, and a crowded East Central Community Center hosted the mayor, Neal Fosseen, along with officials of the police department, the city council, and other community members, including James and Lydia Sims. Fist pounding speeches were given, and Fosseen declared, “We’re the City – you can’t do this!” As was his custom, James detailed the complaints of the neighborhood, and the injustice of redirecting funds from the sale of the park to the wealthier neighborhoods. Cooler heads prevailed.
Ron waited anxiously for word from his father about what decisions were made. The well-planned protest never happened because funding from the sale of Liberty Park would be brought back into the neighborhood. Edison School, which had been in disrepair, would be renovated and repurposed for use as the East Central Community Center. Other parks in the neighborhood would be improved and enlarged. Ron’s plan had worked. His father’s demeanor had changed as well. Whatever annoyance there had been had been replaced. “There was a moment between father and son,” Ron said, recalling that day. “The look in his eyes…” And then came the words every child longs to hear from a parent, words that have the power to launch a child of any age into orbit: “Ron,” his father said, “I’m proud of you.”
“My dad believed in me, and he believed in my cause, and he believed in my method.”
In 1985, Ron Sims would go on to become the first African American elected to the King County Council. After being appointed King County Executive following the election of Gary Locke to Governor of Washington State, Ron would be re-elected King County Executive three times, in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Extending his family legacy of service and concern for the public good, Ron was appointed by President Obama in 2009 to serve as Deputy Director of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. As impressive as his resume stands, it was the Liberty Park Affair, and the victory of earning his father’s trust, that brought Ron Sims to wax nostalgic for a few hours during a long-distance phone call in June of 2012.
Sadly, Lydia Sims passed away just a few weeks later, on June 23, 2012. In her memory, we dedicate this article, in gratitude for her life and work, and especially, for her enduring love for her family.