skip to content
Primary navigation
Feature image for 150 Years of Human Rights: 1962-1975

150 Years of Human Rights: 1962-1975


In the 1920s Minnesota saw the arrival of significant numbers of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from Texas, who came as migrant laborers to work in the fields in the Red River Valley and in processing plants. They would arrive at harvest time and return to Texas or Mexico in the off season, but as time passed, many began to stay here. Some sought jobs in packing houses in South St. Paul, and by 1940 about 4,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had settled on St. Paul"s Lower West Side, on Robert, Wabasha and Concord Streets. There, they formed a cohesive working class community, its social life centered around the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Then, in the early 1960s, came urban renewal: housing in the Lower West Side was demolished to make way for industrial development, and Mexicans and other Latinos settled in other parts of the neighborhood. Some left the West Side to seek housing elsewhere in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and some, the most affluent, moved to the suburbs, to Edina and Robbinsdale. Today, while large numbers of Latinos can be found throughout the Twin Cities, St Paul's West Side is still home to a strong Latino community. In addition, the neighborhood now includes Lebanese, Syrians, and Southeast Asians who call the West Side home.


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.

Watch the video

back to top