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150 Years of Human Rights: 1941-1962


In 1941, America entered World War II with an armed force of only 175,000 -- that force would grow to more than 8 million by the war's end. But war against Hitler"s Third Reich and the Japanese Imperial Army was fought not only by American soldiers, marines, sailors, and pilots, it was a war that fought and ultimately won by the American people -- by farmers and factory workers, by civiliians of both genders and all races: men, women, African-Americans, Indians, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics. 

By the end of the war, 150,000 American women were serving in the Women"s Army Auxiliary Corps -- as clerks, typists, researchers, engineers, mechanics, and electricians. Another 74,000 women served in the American Army and Navy Nurse Corps, and woman also served in other military branches. They were not allowed positions in combat, but many worked in harms way and some were killed. 

At home, women were filling jobs left by those who were serving in the military, jobs usually reserved for men. Women also found new opportunities in other fields, including, on the ball field: the All-American Girls Baseball League was created, reflecting the shortage of major league male baseball players.

African-Americans in World War II

African-Americans were allowed to enlist in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard under the 1940 Selective Service Act, and President Roosevelt also gave them the permission to join the Air Corps. They served in segregated battalions -- military officials supported segregation because they believed integration would cause social disruption. After the war, President Truman issued a policy of "equality of treatment and opportunity in the military." And despite the opposition of some military commanders, by the end of the Korean conflict, more than 90% of African-Americans served in integrated units.


In many large metropolitan areas, blacks and Hispanics continued to be targets of racial animosity throughout the 30s and 40s. In 1943 race riots erupted in Detroit, Los Angeles and Harlem, fueled by long-standing injustices. Concerned that such riots might happen in Minnesota, Governor Edward Thye created a commission to study discrimination and economic inequality and suggest solutions. The commission was later renamed the Governor's Human Rights Commission; part of its mission was to educate the public on discrimination and human rights. It was another beginning, and a series of state anti-discrimination laws followed: In 1955 Governor Orville Freeman signed the Fair Employment Practices Act, outlawing discrimination in employment based on race, color, creed and national origin -- these protections would not exist on the federal level until almost a decade later. In 1961 another Minnesota governor, Elmer C. Anderson, signed the State Act Against Discrimination, which added religion to the classes protected in the previous laws. The law would later be expanded to include public accommodations and housing, and would ultimately be absorbed into a 1967 law that would go even further in protecting the rights of all Minnesotans: The Minnesota Human Rights Act.


There had been progress, but in the 1940s and early 1950s, basic human rights were still denied to many Minnesotans, including blacks and Jews. In 1946 a famous sociologist, Carey McWilliams, named Minneapolis as the most anti-Semitic city in the United States. A young Minneapolis mayor, Hubert H. Humphrey was stung by the designation, and set out to change the social climate. That same year he established the city's civil rights commission, then known as the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights. And in 1948, under Humphrey's leadership, Minneapolis enacted the nation's first municipal fair employment law. The "most anti-Semetic city in the United States" would eventually, in 1961, elect a Jewish mayor: Arthur Naftalin. 


Hubert Humphrey had awakened the moral conscience of a city, and in 1948 at the Democratic National Convention, he would speak to the conscience of a nation. In a fiery address, this little-known Minneapolis mayor argued that America had waited too long for justice. He urged the Democratic Party to "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." His impassioned plea for civil rights lead to a walkout by Southern delegates, who later selected Strom Thurmond as the presidential nominee of their States' Rights Party. But Humphrey nonetheless succeeded in spurring the convention to add a civil rights plank to the Democratic platform.


In the 17 and 1800s, the policy of the United States government had been to relocate Indians to lands reserved for them -- reservations. But in 1953 under President Dwight Eisenhower, the government initiated a policy of encouraging Indians to blend in to the mainstream of American society. Instead of emphasizing the economic development of reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs now urged Indians to move to urban areas like the Twin Cities.

About 30 percent of American Indians were relocated to cities between 1953 and 1961. While some prospered, many experienced economic and spiritual hardships -- unemployment, discrimination and the loss of traditional cultural supports. 

The federal government would eventually repudiate the policy, and re-embrace tribal autonomy over assimilation. But many say the damage was done -- that the relocation policy had devastating effects on tribal culture, and led to economic and social woes that persist today. Others believe that despite the hardships, some good came from the mass migration of Indians to the cities, where a revival of sprit and sense of brotherhood would sustain them in a new, often hostile urban setting.


From the 1930s until the 1960s, Rondo Avenue was at the heart of St. Paul's largest black neighborhood. African Americans whose families had lived in Minnesota for decades, and others who were just arriving from the South, made up a tight-knit community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. Then came urban renewal -- America was on the move, and needed more freeways -- and almost always, African Americans were the ones who would have to make way for what was called progress. Poor and black neighborhoods, where property values where lower, were targeted for destruction in cities across the country. St. Paul was no exception, and the construction of 1-94 effectively erased Rondo and displaced its thousands of African American families. When the bulldozers came, they had no choice but to move -- to neighborhoods that often did not welcome them, in a discriminatory housing market. Rondo was gone, but it's spirit and legacy is still celebrated every year at St. Paul's Annual Rondo Days Festival.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement began to challenge the racism that relegated blacks to the back of the bus and to status of second-class citizens. One day in February 1960, four black students sat down at a white's only lunch counter at Woolworth's in North Carolina, and asked to be served. Although refused service, they stayed at the counter. The event sparked a wave of sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counters across the segregated south, and picket lines sprang up outside Woolworth's and Kresge stores throughout the country. In St. Paul picketers joined the NAACP boycotting the local Woolworth's store until the chain agreed to desegregate all of its lunch counters. 

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