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Minnesota's Sesquicentennial

150 Years of Human Rights in Minnesota

Events from 1963 to 2003

The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council was created by the Legislature in 1963; In 2002, more than 13,500 legal immigrants arrived in Minnesota -- more than in any previous year in the past two decades.

Events from 1963 to 2003

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The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council was created by the Legislature in 1963 -- its mission: “to protect the sovereignty of the eleven Minnesota tribes and ensure the well being of all American Indian citizens throughout the state of Minnesota.” The Council advises the Legislature on the nature of tribal governments and on other Indian affairs issues, and administers the Indian Business Loan Program, which offers Indians the opportunity to establish or expand a business in Minnesota. The council strives for social, economic and political justice for all American Indians living in the state, while embracing traditional Indian cultural and spiritual values. It is the oldest council in the nation, and serves as the official liaison of the Indian tribes and the state of Minnesota.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2 of that year. It declared that it was illegal to discriminate in employment on the grounds of race, color, religion, or national origin," and authorized the federal government to act against those who would perpetuate these long-standing inequalities.

In addressing the nation on television that evening, President Johnson declared, "We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment... We can understand -- without rancor or hatred -- how all this happened. But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it."

Passage of the law did not come easily. Although a solid majority in both houses of Congress supported the legislation, Southerners who opposed staged a filibuster that would last for 57 days. President Johnson and a coalition of labor, religious and civil rights groups lobbied intensely, and finally -- in an effort spearheaded by Senator Hubert Humphrey -- a historic cloture vote ended the filibuster and the Civil Rights Act became law.


On April 27,.1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd of about 4,000 students at the University of Minnesota, speaking out about racism, poverty and the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Act had been passed three years earlier, but Dr. King knew that the Act was only the first installment to redeem what he had called a promissory note, on which America had defaulted. To fulfill the promise of equality contained in its Declaration of Independence, much remained to be done, especially in the North. He continued to oppose the war, which had claimed the lives of so many young African Americans, and to denounce longstanding inequalities in northern cities. “I see no more dangerous development than the build-up of central cities surrounded by white suburbs” – King noted that day, at the University of Minnesota. It was the last time many in the crowd would ever hear the legendary civil rights leader in person; he would be assassinated less than a year later.


In the late 1960s, young Chicano activists organized to struggle against racism aimed at Latinos, and to fight for social justice. Their movement supported and took inspiration from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, opposed the Vietnam War, and sought to assert Chicano identity in cities and on college campuses. One of the largest organizations in the struggle was the Brown Berets -- a chapter was established in the Twin Cities in 1967. The Brown Berets worked to provide financial, legal and educational support for the local Chicano population. The organization successfully campaigned for a Chicano Studies program at the University of Minnesota, the first of its kind in the Midwest.


In the summer of 1968 three American Indian Activists -- George Mitchell, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt -- gathered together a group of 200 Indian community members to talk about their frustration with discrimination and decades of government policies -- policies that kept them from controlling their own destinies. Through these efforts to resist racism and reclaim their heritage, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was born. AIM soon became a national organization. Its leaders spoke out against high unemployment, slum housing and discrimination, and also fought for treaty rights and the reclamation of tribal land. The organization attracted international attention during a 71-day armed standoff between AIM followers and U.S. law enforcement officers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota -- the site of a U.S. military massacre of 146 Indians in 1890.


While blacks, women and other groups were marching and demanding an end to discrimination, gays had remained invisible to most Minnesotans throughout most of the activist 60s, and gays who lost their jobs, or faced harassment because of their sexual orientation, often had no recourse. Then in 1969, two student activists at the University of Minnesota decided to teach an informal class. “The homosexual and society." The class laid the foundation for Minnesota’s first public gay organization, called FREE: Fight Repression of Erotic Expression. In the years that followed Minnesota's GLBT -- Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender -- Community became visible and vocal. "Our message was simple," recalled Dolly Rurak, speaking at a rally at the state capitol to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the gay rights movement. "We are here, we have always been here, and we will always be here. We asked no special privilege, but only to be treated under the law as others are treated." In 1993, the Minnesota Human Rights Act was amended to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation -- currently, only 17 states and the District of Columbia recognize sexual orientation as a protected class.


For three days in January 1969, a group of black students later joined by other activists took over Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota, to protest the lack of curriculum and academic opportunities for African American students. Among their demands: that a program be established "that would reflect the contributions of black people to the culture of America,” that the University contribute to the cost of a conference on black students to be held at the U, and that efforts to recruit black students be accelerated by placing the Martin Luther King scholarship program in the hands of the black community. At the time, there were only about 100 black students on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. But the protest ignited a conversation that focused on their concerns, and sparked a series of events that led to historic changes -- including the university’s first Afro-American/African Studies program.


Beginning in 1975, Minnesota saw the arrival of a new ethnic group, most of whom came from north Laos. The first Hmong families came as refugees, fleeing in peril from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. They had been recruited by the U.S. government to fight its secret war against communists in Laos; with the fall of Saigon and the North Vietnamese victory, their lives were in jeopardy. Churches aided the humanitarian effort to resettle these refugees, and eventually more than 60,000 Hmong would settle Minnesota -- in Duluth, Rochester, Taylor’s Falls, and Marshall -- but at least half would settle in Saint Paul. Minnesota's capitol city is now home to the largest urban population of Hmong in the world.


In 1977, Rosalie Wahl became the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court. Born in 1924, she was almost 40 when she became, in her own words, “tired of sitting outside doors waiting for the men inside to make decisions”, and decided to enter the William Mitchell School of Law. She worked as an assistant public defender after graduation, and in 1973 she was offered a professorship at William Mitchell. Four years later Governor Rudy Perpich appointed her to the Minnesota Supreme Court. She remained on the court for seventeen years until she retired in 1994 at the mandatory age of 70.


Playwright August Wilson brought audiences a new understanding of the black experience in America in a series of critically-acclaimed dramas. He was born in 1945 in a black slum in Pittsburgh; his father was absent and his mother depended upon public assistance and income from cleaning jobs to raise her six children in a shoddy, two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. He would learn to read at age four, experience racial taunts as the only black child at a mostly white parochial school, and drop out of school at 15 after one of his teachers wrongly accused him of plagiarism -- she refused to believe that a black child could produce such a well-written term paper on Napoleon, on his own. In the Negro section of the Pittsburgh public library, he began to educate himself, reading works by African American writers such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

But while his roots were in Pittsburgh, he found his voice as a playwright when he moved to St. Paul in 1978. In St. Paul he became associated with Minnesota's Playwrights Center and later, with the Penumbra Theater Company, which premiered many of his works. Wilson died in 2005, leaving a legacy of ten plays, each documenting a different decade of life in America. Two of his best-known works, Fences and The Piano Lesson, each won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987 and 1990, respectively. He is the recipient of numerous other awards and honors, including a 1987 Tony Award for Fences.


On July 26, 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA was the first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities in the world. The Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations, and in telecommunications.

Since its passage, the Act has become a part of our national consciousness, leaving its indelible stamp on our institutions and culture. Accessible parking places, closed captioning, service dogs joining their companions in restaurants, elevator numbers in Braille—all resulted from the ADA. The Act has brought people with disabilities into the mainstream of American life: into restaurants and shopping malls, schools and places of worship and the workplace. No wonder it has been described as the Civil Rights Act for America’s 54 million people with disabilities.


In 2002, more than 13,500 legal immigrants arrived in Minnesota -- more than in any previous year in the past two decades. They came from 160 countries, with immigrants born in Somalia outnumbering all the others, followed by those from India, Ethiopia, and Mexico. More than 90 percent of all immigrants settled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Rochester and St. Cloud areas. But the impact of immigration was felt throughout the state -- nearly one quarter of Mexican immigrants, 20 percent of Canadians and 12 percent of Somalis settled outside these metropolitan areas.

The trend continued, setting a new record in 2005 with more than 15,000 new arrivals, the highest number in 25 years. Two of every five came from Africa -- from Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia and Kenya -- but Mexico, China, Vietnam, Russia and Canada were also among the top ten countries that had contributed to a changing Minnesota. Why did they come? Why do they keep arriving? For many of the same reasons Germans, Swedes and Norwegians settled in Minnesota in the 1800s. In a word, opportunity.


On the 150th anniversary of Minnesota's statehood, opportunity remains at the heart of Minnesota's story, a bridge that unites our past with our hopes for the future. The opportunity for education, for cultural identity, religious freedom, and economic prosperity -- for a better life. It's the desire and birthright of all Minnesotans, yet our people have not always shared equally in the fruits of what Swedish immigrant and author Fredrika Bremer, called..."This Minnesota … a glorious country." For some, prejudice and discrimination have kept many doors closed. But we have struggled, since the beginning, to break down those doors and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute. One milestone in this struggle is the Minnesota Human Rights Act, that envisions and mandates a Minnesota that is discrimination-free.

As we celebrate our Sesquicentennial, we know that despite the inevitable complaints about subzero weather, Minnesota is exceptional place. And it can be an even better place, especially if we learn from our 150-year history. Because the future -- the next chapter -- is up to all of us.

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