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Posts from Joshua Newville, a Minnesota employment lawyer, civil rights attorney, and mediator.

Breaking Barriers: A Brief History of Civil Rights in Minnesota

From early legal challenges to discrimination in the 19th century and the ongoing efforts to promote greater equality and social justice in the 21st century, the fight for civil rights has been a key part of Minnesota's history and identity.


Mural of Bob Dylan lyric "the times they are a-changin'" in downtown Minneapolis

Pre-Civil Rights Era in Minnesota


Minnesota has a rich history with Native Americans that dates back thousands of years. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the region was home to various tribes, including the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk. These tribes had their own unique cultures, languages, and traditions, and they often had complex relationships with one another.


While Minnesota's early history with Native Americans is rich and complex, it is also marked by violence and displacement. The arrival of European settlers and the subsequent push for land and resources led to the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans in Minnesota and across the United States.


Minnesota was not a slave state, but slavery did exist in the region prior to the Civil War. Some white settlers in Minnesota owned slaves, and there were also free black individuals in the region who faced discrimination and limited opportunities.


Despite the presence of slavery and discrimination in Minnesota, there were also strong abolitionist movements in the region. The Underground Railroad had a presence in Minnesota, with several safe houses and networks helping enslaved individuals escape to freedom. The abolitionist movement in Minnesota also played a role in shaping the state's early history and values.


Even prior to the Civil War, there were challenges to discrimination in Minnesota. In one famous legal challenge stemming from 1860, Minnesota courts relied on the Minnesota Constitution to free a visiting slave who had been brought with her master to vacation on Lake Harriet.


One of the most popular and successful organizers of the abolitionist movement in Minnesota was Jane Grey SwisshelmIn. She became a prominent journalist and editor who founded the St. Cloud Visiter, a weekly newspaper that advocated for abolitionism, women's rights, and temperance. Swisshelmln used her platform to challenge the prevailing attitudes of the time, particularly when it came to women's roles in society. She argued that women should have the right to vote, to own property, and to have control over their own bodies. And, she famously challenged male leaders for their support of slavery.


Other early legal challenges in Minnesota included cases related to voting rights and education. While progress was slow, these legal challenges helped to lay the groundwork for future civil rights efforts in the state.


Civil Rights in Minnesota in the 20th Century


Minnesota experienced significant civil rights struggles during the 20th century, particularly in the areas of racial and ethnic discrimination, voting rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. Many of these struggles were part of larger national movements for civil rights and social justice.


Racial and ethnic discrimination was a significant issue in Minnesota during the 20th century. Discrimination in employment, housing, and education was common, and many marginalized groups faced significant barriers to success and opportunity.


In the early 1960's, Minnesota became one of the first states in the nation to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. This act helped to promote fair housing practices and reduce discrimination in housing.


Voting rights and political participation were also key civil rights issues in Minnesota during the 20th century. Like many states, Minnesota had a history of discriminatory voting practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that prevented marginalized groups from fully participating in the political process.


Legal challenges to these practices, as well as advocacy and activism by civil rights organizations, helped to expand voting rights and political participation for marginalized groups in Minnesota. This included the enforcement of national and state voting rights laws that prohibited discriminatory practices and provided greater access to the ballot for marginalized groups.


Roberts v US Jaycees was a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in Minnesota and had a significant impact on Minnesota law. The case was brought by a group of women in Minnesota who challenged the US Jaycees' policy of excluding women from full membership in the organization. The women argued that the policy violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on gender.


The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the women, finding that the US Jaycees' policy violated the state's anti-discrimination law. The case then made its way to the United States Supreme Court, which affirmed the Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling and held that the US Jaycees' policy violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act.


The decision in Roberts v US Jaycees had important implications for Minnesota law and helped to establish the principle that state anti-discrimination laws could override an organization's freedom of association. The case also had broader implications for civil rights and gender equality in the United States, helping to promote greater inclusion and diversity in private organizations and clubs.


LGBTQ+ rights and discrimination was another key civil rights issue in Minnesota during the 20th century. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was common, and LGBTQ+ individuals faced significant barriers to equality and opportunity.


Despite these challenges, there were also significant victories for LGBTQ+ rights in Minnesota during the 20th century. In 1993, Minnesota became one of the first states in the country to pass a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that included sexual orientation and gender identity.


Overall, civil rights struggles in Minnesota during the 20th century were complex and multifaceted, and progress was slow and hard-won. Nonetheless, legal challenges, activism, and advocacy helped to promote greater equality and social justice in the state.


Key Individuals and Organizations in Minnesota's Civil Rights History


Minnesota has a rich history of individuals who fought for civil rights and social justice. These individuals came from all walks of life and were active in a variety of areas, including education, politics, and activism.


Some of the most prominent leaders in Minnesota's history include Roy Wilkins, who was a key figure in the national civil rights movement and the former executive director of the NAACP, Josie Johnson, who played a significant role in Minnesota's civil rights movement and served as the first African American on the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents, and Hubert Humphrey, who played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Other notable civil rights leaders in Minnesota's history include Nellie Stone Johnson, who was a labor and civil rights activist and the first African American elected to public office in Minnesota, and Mahmoud El-Kati, who is a historian and educator and has been a leading voice on issues of race and social justice in Minnesota for decades.


Minnesota was also home to a number of key civil rights attorneys who played a significant role in advancing civil rights at the national level. For example, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. One of the key attorneys in that case was a Minnesota-based lawyer named Philip Hirschkop. Additionally, attorney Vernon Jordan, who was a key civil rights leader and advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, got his start as a lawyer in Minnesota.


In addition to key individuals, Minnesota also had a number of key civil rights organizations that played a significant role in the state's civil rights history. These organizations included the NAACP, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus.


The NAACP was a key organization in Minnesota's civil rights movement and played a significant role in legal challenges to discrimination and promoting greater political participation for marginalized groups. AIM was a key organization in the fight for Native American rights and played a significant role in raising awareness about issues such as police brutality and cultural preservation. The Minnesota Women's Political Caucus was a key organization in promoting greater political participation for women and advocating for women's rights.


These are just some of the individuals and organizations who played a crucial role in promoting civil rights and social justice in Minnesota. Their work helped to expand opportunities and equality for marginalized groups and laid the groundwork for continued progress in the state.


Overall, Minnesota's legal system played a crucial role in advancing civil rights and social justice, both in the state and at the national level. Legal challenges to discriminatory practices and policies helped to expand civil rights protections and challenge systemic injustice, and key legal figures from Minnesota helped to shape civil rights at the national level.


Continuing Struggles and Ongoing Work


While significant progress has been made in the fight for civil rights in Minnesota, there continue to be ongoing struggles and challenges. Issues related to racial and ethnic discrimination, LGBTQ+ rights, and access to education and healthcare remain significant concerns. The state has experienced its share of police brutality, racial profiling, and discrimination against immigrant and refugee communities. Recent high-profile incidents, such as the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, have highlighted the ongoing need for reform and progress in the fight for civil rights.


One key ongoing struggle in Minnesota is the racial disparities in education, employment, and healthcare. Minnesota has one of the largest disparities in educational achievement between white students and students of color in the country, and there are also significant disparities in employment and healthcare outcomes.


There are a number of ongoing efforts to address racial and social justice issues in Minnesota. This includes initiatives to promote greater diversity and inclusion in schools and workplaces, as well as efforts to promote greater access to healthcare and other services for marginalized communities.


Reflections and Lessons Learned


Minnesota's civil rights history is a significant part of the state's history and has had a profound impact on the lives of individuals and communities. The struggle for civil rights in Minnesota helped to expand opportunities and equality for marginalized groups, and the state's legal system played a crucial role in advancing civil rights and social justice.


Minnesota's civil rights history provides a number of important lessons for individuals and communities today. One key lesson from Minnesota's civil rights history is the importance of sustained advocacy and activism. Legal challenges and court decisions were important in advancing civil rights in the state, but they were often the result of years of activism and advocacy by civil rights organizations and leaders.


Another lesson from Minnesota's civil rights history is the importance of collaboration and coalition building. Civil rights organizations and leaders in Minnesota often worked together to achieve common goals, and this collaboration helped to promote greater unity and effectiveness in the struggle for civil rights.


Minnesota's civil rights history has significant implications for the future. As the state continues to grapple with issues related to racial and social justice, there is a need for continued activism and advocacy to promote greater equality and opportunity for all.


Moving forward, it will also be important to recognize the intersections between different forms of discrimination and oppression. This includes issues related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors that can impact an individual's experiences of discrimination and marginalization.


Overall, Minnesota's civil rights history provides important insights and lessons for the ongoing struggle for social justice in the state and beyond.



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Joshua Newville is a Minnesota employment lawyer, civil rights attorney, and mediator. Josh litigates and advises on such matters as wrongful termination, whistleblowers, discrimination, police misconduct, and more. He offers paid legal consultations and free online case reviews regarding employment law and civil rights.

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