Rounds of applause marked Chair Harold Moss’s final Pierce County Council meeting Tuesday (12/14/04) as he concluded his distinguished public service career. The meeting, during which he was honored by Executive John Ladenburg and others, closed a major chapter in a remarkable life story. Moss, whose term expires at year’s end, will no longer be a public servant.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to have done what you enjoy doing and actually made a living at it,” Moss said. He noted that the people with whom he worked as Pierce County Council chair and member and Tacoma mayor and councilman are the “most important product is in my life.”
Ladenburg presented an award to Moss on behalf of the Puget Sound Regional Council, which the county executive serves as vice president. The award acknowledges Moss for providing key assistance in implementing Destination 20-30, the region’s long-range transportation plan, as a member of the regional council’s transportation policy board. The plan was cited as the nation’s best transportation plan last year.
Ladenburg told Moss that he worked just as hard for the citizens of the four-county region as he did for the citizens of Pierce County. “We want to thank you,” he said.
In an interview prior to his final meeting, Moss said he has particularly enjoyed interacting with Ladenburg in his role as council chair. “John has been very open to the notion of collaborative work. We deliberately do not have surprises, even in the budget. John may not like what we say, and we may not like what he says, but everything is on the table. No surprises. To me that is what is important. There is so much more power in finding common ground,” he said.
Moss served the maximum two four-year terms allowed by the County Charter, the last three years as chair. That was unprecedented on this body and something the self-proclaimed former civil rights agitator couldn’t have imagined when first appointed to the Tacoma City Council more than 30 years ago. “Nothing has made me more proud than being elected by my peers unanimously for three consecutive years to be chair of the Pierce County Council,” he said in an interview.
Those who have observed Moss as a county councilman and previously as Tacoma mayor aren’t surprised that he was honored in such a way. They know him as a person of moderation, someone who is fair and respectful with each individual and group appearing before him. But there was a time when no one, black or white, wanted to see Moss approaching.
That period began in Detroit when Moss learned about civil rights from his father, both by observation and word. “My father has been gone since 1994, but he remains my hero. He was graphic about the things he had seen in Texas. He moved north to find factory work, only to discover that the only jobs available to him were at the end of a broom. He had been an insurance salesman and had owned his own barbershop, and although he taught me that all work is honorable, he wasn’t about to settle for a janitor’s job,” Moss recalled.
John Harris Moss, his father, agreed to take a job cleaning an auto body shop in return for instruction in “how to bang out these fenders. When he became proficient enough, he opened his own shop and never looked back. My father always owned his own shop.”
Young Moss worked for his father and also participated in civil rights marches and protests. He was there for the Detroit riots that made headlines across the country. In a day when military service was required of young men, Moss joined the Army and found himself at Fort Lewis. He made Tacoma his home after being discharged and married in 1951. Moss had two sons and a daughter and now also has five grandsons and four great-granddaughters.
Following his father’s example, Moss learned a trade and found work as a dental technician and in following years operated both a commercial dental laboratory and a dental clinic. He also worked as an Urban League director and as a Washington State Department of Transportation manager.
As an activist he became involved in the NAACP’s Tacoma chapter. Early on he attracted the attention of the Weyerhaeuser Co. and the local Chamber of Commerce and was hired to develop and run an employment program aimed at heading off the unrest that was breaking out in some cities with race riots. He became a leader in the local movement to gain fair housing for all regardless of race.
With the passing of the state’s anti-discrimination laws, Moss joined with a few others including young lawyer Jack Tanner, who went on to become a U.S. District judge, to integrate local public facilities. “We’d go sit in a bar or restaurant, and if they wouldn’t serve us, we’d sue them,” Moss said. “We brought the first civil rights trials in the old City Hall when Channel 5 was the only television news station. They’d bring that big box down, and the trials made the evening news. We knew that the law was meaningless unless we used it.”
The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King inspired civil rights workers across America. “That was the most dramatic, dynamic piece of history and allowed us to endure Selma, Birmingham and the other marches. It made a major difference here in Tacoma,” Moss said.
His community work led to political interest, and he ran unsuccessfully for a Tacoma City Council seat in 1968. “At that time I was at the height of my most agitating period,”
Moss said. “A lot of things going on got me to the hyper point, and I would get right in your face. There was no middle ground with me; everything was an racial issue.”
About that time several people in positions of power offered him advice. “They said I had to change my demeanor or I wouldn’t be an effective elected official. I wanted more than anything to be effective, so I changed. I found that I liked the result when I allowed my better nature to come to the front,” he said.
The subsequent recall of five council members gave him another chance when he was appointed to one of the seats, becoming the first black person to serve on the City Council. He remained for five years and resigned to keep his Urban League position. Later, he was again appointed to the City Council and followed with two wins at the polls. Mayor Jack Hyde, his close friend, died in January 1994, and Moss was selected by his council peers to serve the next two years as mayor.
He ran for County Council District 4 in 1996. His victory that November marked the first time he’d been elected to office without first being appointed.
“Regardless of what I say, race still plays a part in everyday life. So it became an enormously successful thing for a black person to be elected to govern in an absolute majority white society,” he said. “I am extremely pleased with that because it means you don’t have to assimilate in order to represent people.”
For Moss, public service means doing the people’s business, “not because you’re black but because it is the people’s business. I have tried to be absolutely fair and absolutely respectful of everyone’s position,” he said. “I have been on the outside, and I know what that is like. I don’t have a problem with bringing the gavel down on anybody, and they know it. But they also know where they stand and that they’re never going to be left out. They know they will get a fair hearing.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Moss replied: “That he was a fair guy and treated everyone equally. He demanded that he be treated that way. And, he wasn’t afraid to love folks.”