SEATTLE — Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which celebrated the reverend and civil rights hero’s birthday of Jan. 15, 1929. King visited Seattle just once, in November 1961, and wasn’t welcomed with open arms. The Rev. Samuel B. McKinney arranged for King to speak at First Presbyterian Church, but the church rescinded the invitation a few weeks before King arrived. (The church later apologized.)
King went on to speak at the University of Washington in the old Meany Hall, then at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Garfield High School (where King workshopped his iconic “I have a dream” speech) and finally the Eagles Auditorium downtown — now Kreielsheimer Place, home of ACT Theatre.
Starting with the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, where King stayed during his visit, you can connect several landmarks on a 4-mile walk through several center-city neighborhoods. Extending the walk north to the University of Washington — Allen Center for the Visual Arts was built where old Meany stood until a 1965 earthquake condemned the building — or south to Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park adds two worthwhile stops, provided you’re willing to trek an extra 10-plus miles. For now, try this starter route for a reflective walk.
Follow in Martin Luther King’s footsteps
- Round-trip distance: 3.9 miles
King checked in to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel on Fourth Avenue downtown on Nov. 8, 1961. Greater Seattle’s 21st-century population boom has dramatically changed the city, but King would have seen the modestly bustling downtown featured in a 1961 promotional film for the city, which touts several then-brand-new buildings like the Norton Building (as well as artist renderings of the in-progress Space Needle).
Two blocks beyond the hotel where Martin Luther King III spoke last fall, take a right onto Union Street and head north toward Fifth Avenue. You can walk on either side of the street, looking out for a giant flower vase as your landmark — that’s Ginny Ruffner’s “The Urban Garden” at the corner of Union and Seventh Avenue. Time it right and you might see the flowers get “watered.”
Our route continues on Seventh Avenue (hang a left after the flowers), but our first landmark is across the street. Look out for the ornate eagle at Kreielsheimer Place, once home of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Eagles Auditorium where King gave the largest address of his 1961 trip. The gorgeous, terracotta-covered building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and has housed ACT Theatre since 1996.
Carry on toward the Washington State Convention Center, taking a right on Pike Street. The route continues uphill, away from Elliott Bay, all the way over Interstate 5 as downtown gives way to Capitol Hill.
Just beyond I-5, pause a moment at Plymouth Pillars Park, at the intersection of Pike and Boren Avenue, and Seattle’s past and its present. The four pillars there once marked the entrance to Plymouth Congregational Church, which hosted a reception for King after his keynote speech at the Eagles Auditorium. It’s an oft-overlooked park that, frankly, is in a sorry state in light of its place in Seattle history. The columns are often graffitied.
Pike Street curves up Capitol Hill and becomes East Pike Street, lined with restaurants and clubs that King would not have seen, of course, but also home to First Covenant Church, which stood at Pike and Bellevue Avenue when the reverend came to Seattle. King spoke at the east edge of Cap Hill, at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the oldest and largest Reform Jewish congregation in the Seattle area.
When Pike crosses East Madison Street, you’re almost there. Just off Pike on 16th Avenue is Temple De Hirsch Sinai, King’s second of four lecture locations. If you’re ready for a break, you can take a seat at T.T. Minor Playground across the street. (The rest of the walk is all downhill.)
East Union Street forms the southern border of the park and synagogue; we’ll follow that road east toward the Central District. Take the Stay Healthy Streets section at 22nd Avenue south to East Columbia Street. Garfield High School is on 23rd, less than a mile from the temple.
Garfield is the final stop on our route that King was able to visit. Our final destination is First Presbyterian Church at the edge of First Hill. Back in the fall of 1961, church leaders had already circulated advertisements for King’s lecture when they decided to cancel, citing a litany of suspect excuses. McKinney chalked the cancellation up to racism.
East Jefferson Street, across from Garfield’s Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center, will take us home. Use the brick clock tower of King Street Station as your guide as you walk past Seattle University and the hospitals on Jefferson.
Look out for Ninth Avenue when approaching the Harborview Medical Center campus and take a right there to head northwest toward St. James Cathedral. Three blocks farther runs Spring Street, home of First Presbyterian Church, the final stop on our walk.
The stone façade of the church now faces two brand-new high-rises; like several of the landmarks on this walk, it’s a reminder that we aren’t so far removed from our past. King would have been 93 this year had he not been assassinated in 1968.
Spring Street steps over I-5 and reveals the ever-growing Seattle skyline of today. Walk downhill toward Elliott Bay (you can’t miss it). When you get to the Central Library, you’ll want to take the right on Fourth Avenue and head back to the Fairmont Olympic.
Our walk ends here, but farther south, Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park and the Northwest African American Museum (when open under non-COVID-19 circumstances) make great stops to learn more about the life and influence of King.