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They fought for change with distinct voices — delicate and determined, loud and unrelenting. For decades, these Twin Cities civil rights leaders marched and protested, rallied and fought against injustice that people today are still confronting in the same city streets and same government halls. Together, they changed Minnesota. But not as much as any of them would like. “I worry,” says civil rights icon Josie Johnson, “that our children have to keep fighting their ancestors’ struggle.”
In the wake of global protests sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a quintet of long-serving Black leaders and activists — Johnson, Spike Moss, Sharon Sayles Belton, Mahmoud El-Kati and Nekima Levy Armstrong — share their histories and hopes. And yes, they are hopeful. They believe the movement’s latest chapter might be this country’s best chance to right itself, to redeem itself. So long as young people keep pushing. The interviews were edited for clarity and brevity.

Josie Johnson

Johnson, 89, grew up in Houston where, by 14, she was collecting signatures to fight a poll tax. In Minnesota, she became an influential lobbyist and community organizer who served on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.

On the past

When I came here to Minneapolis, there were two residential areas designated for African Americans. One was in the south of the city, where we lived — near Portland Avenue and 38th, 39th Street. And the other was on the North Side.

I was invited to be engaged in lobbying for fair housing on a state level. During the legislative session of ’61, we were lobbying every day — going to the State Capitol. Many of our legislators had never seen or talked with an African American person. Finally, we were, with the help of Gov. Elmer Andersen, able to get the bill out of committee.

We were the first state to get a fair housing bill passed. That was 1962, and here we are in 2020 still fighting for equal, quality housing. Those things are never isolated. So it’s not just housing or just this or just that. It becomes the observation that there’s a collective denial of all kinds of things — quality education, equal employment opportunities. All those things fall into a pattern of behavior. And the pattern comes from the early miseducation of white America about us as a people.

To have a community like ours — one that many of us believed was open, just, equal, a sign of opportunity — could be shown to be none of that. America must examine herself before she’s destroyed by her inequality, by her own injustice, by her own lack of knowledge.

On the importance of George Floyd

We as a people have always known that the police kill Black people. They report it, but it’s always, ‘He was trying to get away. …’ There was always some effort to explain why our people were murdered.

But this time, with the courage of the people who took pictures, we could show the arrogance of a policeman who felt he could kill this man — who could look in the face of the camera and be seen doing the killing with no fear.

I will forever be grateful for the courage of the persons who shared with us so we could see with our own eyes how Black people can be killed and the killing justified. If that picture hadn’t been taken, America would be treating that killing as it has so many others of our people from slavery forward.

What keeps her up at night

Our children are doing less well, academically. Our communities are less protected. Our people are still struggling for quality of life, for education, for opportunities for our children. Here we are, darling, in 2020, and I have great-grandchildren that I worry about.

It’s so important that our children understand who they are — the beautiful, creative, imaginative people they are.

Spike Moss

Moss, 75, has fought police brutality against Black people for decades. Born in Missouri, his family moved to Minnesota, where he helped found The Way, a Minneapolis community center that celebrated Black power.

On the past

My mother had three kids before me. She lost all three. If you went across the train tracks into town, there was a clinic — but it was whites only. We had 170 miles to get to the nearest hospital that would accept Blacks. So not only my mother, but many of her family lost loved ones bringing birth on kitchen tables. I’m a victim of bad environment. It started there.

The first time I said something, I was 9 years old, and we were uptown on a hot day. I just wanted a drink of water. And my mother told me, “Only white people can drink that water, son.” “But I’m hot.” I told her, “When I get big, I’m going to drink where I want to drink.”

You were disrespected your entire life during Jim Crow, which is the reason my mother brought us to Minnesota. Turns out Minnesota is Mississippi up north.

On building a movement

I was standing up at 16. I was pushing back. I didn’t like the way we were treated. Police kept beating young kids up all the time for no reason.

We got The Way out of it. We got that building, remodeled that building and opened a huge walk-in center. That’s when we started fighting for our rights. People were coming from the South Side and St. Paul to stand up and fight back. Those were our first battles — jobs and education. And boy, did they battle us. The movement in Minneapolis came out of The Way itself.

On systemic injustice

I lived it. I witnessed it. I saw the stitches. I saw the court system back up the police officers and everything they did. I fought those cases for 50-some years. From the City Council to the state representatives, none would defend or protect us. None! That, to me, was the most painful part of it — that nobody would protect our people. You were all by yourself trying to fight injustice.

This is a lawless society. If it’s a criminal act done by us? You go to prison and federal penitentiary. But if it’s a criminal act done by them? There’s no accountability, no consequences for their actions. When you know you don’t have to go to jail, then why would you stop?

God let me live long enough where I could prove that everything I fought for was the truth. It cost me a lot, but I told the truth.

On finding hope

The rebellion is about more than George Floyd. It’s about how long this has been going on. That’s why they’re so angry. What they grew up with, what they hear their parents talk about — it all built up in them. Then Floyd lit a fuse.

All these young people are brilliant. Most of them are geniuses. So if you take the intelligence they’ve got and pair it with electronics, you can organize.

Now is the time of the greatest chance for African Americans to finally be recognized for their human-being-ness, to finally be treated fairly and to finally challenge systemic racism. They can show the world.

Sharon Sayles Belton

Sayles Belton, 69, served as mayor of Minneapolis from 1994 to 2001, the first woman and first African American elected to that post. Today, she’s a vice president at Thomson Reuters.

On the past

My grandfather, Bill Sayles, was an auto mechanic who worked at the old Lowry Garage in downtown St. Paul. That’s the place where all of the leaders parked their cars. In the course of his work, he got to know a lot of them, and was someone who could make things happen. If someone needed a job or a doctor but couldn’t pay, he would help. I sometimes meet men who are senior to me who will thank me for something my grandfather did. I have pictures of him standing in crowds of African Americans fighting for their rights. So, I got it from him, both a sense of community service and how to get things done.

After Rondo, we moved to Minneapolis, and I spent my teen years about six blocks from the intersection of 38th and Chicago. That was my gasoline station. I never really liked the Cup Foods store. When I was growing up, there was a pharmacy there. I know that corner like the back of my hand, every single business that’s been there dating back to the Ben Franklin, where I used to go and buy all my sewing supplies.

On a seminal moment

If you look at my high school yearbook, it said that I wanted to be a pediatrician. I love children and love the idea that you could help reduce suffering to the most vulnerable in our society. My focus was biology and science at Macalester until I took an advanced writing course.

We had the opportunity to use our writing skills to help prisoners express themselves. It was an interesting experiment and transformational experience. Going in, what did I know about prisons? Nothing. I had grown up in Rondo before the freeway came through, and it was an idyllic community. We had everything and everyone took care of everyone. All the mothers knew all the kids, then the freeway came.

Anyway, you go into the prison and there’s a bunch of Black people, a whole lot, locked up. And you go, “Oh, my god, what happened here?”

You get assigned to work with someone and you start to hear the stories of how people got to where they are, their aspirations for when they get out of prison, and their fear that they’ll never get out or make parole. And you begin to see the gaps in services in the community that make it hard for them to get out of prison and have a successful life. There were so many who claimed to have received a high school diploma, and the truth of the matter is they couldn’t read or write. Or you found out in their family history that they were subject to abuse and neglect. Or if they were women, they may have been sexually abused by a foster family and no one dealt with their abuse. There was a consequence for that, and it was on the individual, not society. You learn those things and you have to ask yourself, “What can I do about that?”

On finding hope

Right now I’m leading the Minneapolis rebuild effort for Thomson Reuters, working with local and national organizations. I feel honored for the assignment and, of course, it’s a part of the city I know well. This is all deeply personal and meaningful for me — for my family, my values, everything that shaped me.

Mahmoud El-Kati

El-Kati, 86, is a lecturer, writer and Macalester College emeritus professor who, as a young professor, was among the founders of the African American studies department at the University of Minnesota.

On the past

America has a split personality. It’s the land of the free and also the home of the slave, as W.E.B. DuBois put it. It promises freedom for Europeans but the descendants of Africans are bound to a caste system called slavery.

Black people are the most loyal citizens America has ever had. In official wars, we’ve fought and died and sacrificed since Crispus Attucks. And all the Black people in Washington’s army. There were 200,000 of us in the Civil War. In the War of 1812, Black people were still finishing the White House when the British burned it down. The troops who helped Andrew Jackson win the battle of New Orleans were Black. And on and on through today.

What keeps him up at night

I don’t think anybody is born a racist. That’s complicated nonsense. And the idea of Black and white races comes out of a racist paradigm. Blood comes in different types but all of it is red. I’m B-positive. None of my children have my blood type but every other white man I could meet may be my blood brother.

What worries me is that we’re in a moment that’s as dangerous as the moment leading to the Civil War. And the president just adds to it. We’re the most armed country in the world. [President Donald] Trump didn’t create that but he’s exploiting it. Trump is the first president since Woodrow Wilson to be an open-faced white supremacist. Washington, D.C., wasn’t segregated after Reconstruction but when Wilson came and his wife came, they were horrified by Black people eating together with whites in the lunchroom, so they set about segregating it.

And Trump is playing with the language and symbols of white supremacy now, coddling neo-Nazis and posting videos of people saying “white power.” His vocabulary and paradigms come from that sphere. He’s called himself a nationalist but he doesn’t have to say anything himself. The old folks used to say that when what you’re doing speaks so loud, you don’t have to open your mouth.

On finding hope

This thing is bigger than the ’60s and makes the Civil Rights Movement look like child’s play. First, I’m real proud of the young people. They’re exhuming some things from the ’60s and coming back stronger. Our movement is not Afrocentric but human-centric. It’s not a rights struggle but a moral struggle to have America transcend its contradictions.

Nekima Levy Armstrong

Armstrong, 44, is an attorney and activist. A former law professor at the University of St. Thomas, she served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP, becoming a key voice calling for police reform.

On the past

In ’85 when I was around 8, my family moved to South Central L.A. It was a completely different way of life going from Jackson, Mississippi, where we lived, to a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood where most people were extremely poor.

Most of my teachers were African American, which made a huge difference in my life, and the trajectory I took. When I was 14, I wound up applying for a program called “A Better Chance,” and won a full, four-year scholarship to the Brooks boarding school in North Andover, Massachusetts. It was at that time that I began to find my voice in civil rights because of the racism that we dealt with at a predominantly white school. I started speaking out, researching African American history and honing my leadership skills.

On becoming an activist

Throughout our history, laws have been written and unequally applied to target African Americans. Like the Black Codes, which were put in place after slavery when Black people could be arrested for things like spitting or being unemployed, hanging out late at night.

In 2015, we pushed Minneapolis to eliminate two ordinances for spitting and lurking. We found that African Americans were disproportionately charged under these ordinances and, again, these charges had a lot of consequences.

In November 2014, I went to Ferguson for a week as a legal observer through the National Lawyers Guild. I got there the day after they announced that the grand jury was not going to indict the officer who killed Mike Brown. I went to observe but wound up being tear-gassed. And just saw what was happening on the front lines. When I got back, I was approached by young people saying they were going to start a Black Lives Matter chapter in Minneapolis. I became an adviser. It’s now defunct. Nov. 30, 2014, was the first protest. We shut down I-35, then marched to City Hall. The next protest was at the Mall of America and because of my stature as a lawyer and law professor, they targeted me. I was charged with eight misdemeanors. I didn’t consider myself an organizer at the time. But I said, if they’re gonna treat me as an organizer, I’m gonna become one. And so that really set me on fire to take things to the next level as an advocate.

What keeps her up at night

Activists are underappreciated. We get so used to being mistreated — to not having our rights or having our bodies be valued. A lot of times you face backlash for standing up for what’s right; at the same time, as people become more awakened and/or get closer to the problem, then they may be more likely to get involved or show up at a protest.

On finding hope

This movement for justice for George Floyd became worldwide. That is astounding. We have to give credit to the movement, to the folks here who’ve labored on the front lines in raising awareness and literally disrupted things in order to bring about change.

I’m hoping the paradigm shift begins to happen and people become hungry for change, not just for a moment, but for this sustained push for racial justice.