‘Crusaders of Justice’ Tells Minnesota’s Civil Rights History

Crusaders for Justice book cover courtesy Papyrus Publishing
Crusaders for Justice book cover courtesy Papyrus Publishing

“Crusaders for Justice: A Chronicle of Protest by Agitators, Advocates and Activists in their Struggle for Civil and Human Rights in St. Paul, Minnesota” will be the subject of book-signing events with the author from 11:30 a.m – 1:00 p.m. Friday, June 5, 2009, at Rondo Community Outreach Library, 461 N. Dale St., St. Paul; and from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. Friday, June 19, 2009, at Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe, 921 Selby Ave.

By Ann Cader
Papyrus Publishing

…In 1946, the 14th Annual St. Paul Open Golf Tournament barred African American competitors Solomon Hughes and Ted Rhodes…

…In 1968, vandals set fire to the St. Paul house that John McKinney and his family had saved up for 17 years to buy.  Friends and neighbors helped the McKinneys repair their house….

A new book by retired Johnson High School history teacher Arthur C. McWatt relates hundreds of such incidents, big and small. They reveal the dangers, obstacles and humiliations that faced St. Paul’s African Americans over the past two centuries.

In Crusaders for Justice, McWatt gives only cursory attention to the difficulties that challenged the McKinneys and others.  He uses these incidents to set the stage for an amazing chronicle of the St. Paul African American community’s determination, innovation, diplomacy, patience, resistance, mutual assistance and sometimes support from white friends and leaders.

Year by year, the black community and its newspapers chipped away at the barriers formed by prejudice and downright hostility.  As early as the 1890s, the Appeal argued against discrimination in housing and jobs.  In 1915, a year when 100 Blacks in America were lynched, Appeal editor J.Q. Adams persuaded a St. Paul judge to halt local showings of the pro-Ku Klux Klan movie “Birth of a Nation.”  In 1920, Adams criticized the Pioneer Press for frequent use of racial epithets to describe Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Hungarians and Irish—as well as African Americans.

Crusaders for Justice marches the reader through the decades from pre-Civil War to post-Civil Rights Movement, as McWatt summarizes reports he dug out from local newspaper archives and other contemporaneous and historical accounts, as well as from his own personal knowledge.  He and his wife, Katie, have been active in the community for more than 50 years.  As an executive at the St. Paul Urban League and member of the League of Women Voters and the St. Paul NAACP, Katie McWatt has negotiated and fought for housing, jobs, education and civil rights for hundreds of people.  In the 1960s she ran for the St. Paul City Council and the Minnesota Legislature, losing the latter by less than 500 votes.

Author Arthur C. McWatt (Courtesy Papyrus Publishing)
Author Arthur C. McWatt (Courtesy Papyrus Publishing)

The book tells how other St. Paul African Americans went on to national careers.  In the early 1900s, St. Paul attorney Frederick McGhee helped organize the Niagara Movement, precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Later, Whitney Young became chief officer of the National Urban League. Clarence Mitchell III was elected Maryland’s youngest state senator. Roy Wilkins headed the national NAACP for 22 years.

In St. Paul, as nationally, each decade produced gains.  Some lasted; others were too fragile to withstand new setbacks.  McWatt ends the main part of his chronicle at 1980, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against use of racial quotas in college admissions (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke), which led to a 50 percent drop in minority student enrollment at the University of Minnesota.  McWatt notes, “The St. Paul community also faced high unemployment, a rising crime rate and increasing white hostility.”

In an epilogue McWatt states that he wrote Crusaders for Justice “to show that our city has been blessed with a rich heritage of strong and imaginative leadership….St. Paul has often been the training ground for civil rights leaders throughout the nation, many of whom learned their crafts here.”

“Crusaders for Justice” (236 pp.)  was  produced by the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP with assistance from Papyrus Publishing Inc., Brooklyn Park, MN 55428, PapyrusPublishing@msn.com.

Launch events and book-signings are scheduled for 11:30 am – 1:00 p.m. Friday, June 5, 2009, at Rondo Community Outreach Library, 461 N. Dale St., St. Paul, MN, 55103; and 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. Friday, June 19, 2009, at Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe, 921 Selby Ave., St. Paul, MN, 55104.

Copies are available from the St. Paul NAACP at (651) 649-0502, vkydavis@netzero.net, on Amazon.com, or at Golden Thyme Coffee & Café, 921 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 55104, and Common Good Books (Under Nina’s Coffee Cafe), 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul, MN, 55105.

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