Do We Remember . . . the North Central Voters League?

Old Elks Lodge, 559 Carroll StreetCourtesy Minnesota Historical Society/mnhs.org

Old Elks Lodge, 559 Carroll Street
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society/mnhs.org

 

The “sizzling sixties” stands out as one of the most dramatic seachanging
decades in the annals of American political and social
history. Not since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction
has the nation seen such a massive social transformation. Nearly
everything for good or evil surfaced to disrupt the sleeping-beauty
image that most Americans naively clung to.

At that propitious moment, the Congress of the United States
united with a morally outraged social movement and the expedient
leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson to enact three civil
rights bills in rapid succession: 1) the right on the part of disenfranchised
Black Americans to shed the status of caste and enjoy
public accommodations (1964); 2) the right to vote for the second
time (first voting rights bill passed in 1870) (1965); and 3) the
right to equal access in housing (1968). For the first time since the
Reconstruction period, the executive branch of government exercised
its authority to protect the rights of all people as stipulated
by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The triumph
of the human spirit over the entrenched nightmare Jim Crow system
of segregation—the Southern signature for (by law) American
racism—was finally achieved.

Millions of Americans, mainstream and marginalized, viewed a
new America in the making on their television screens. The images
of marching Blacks was a constant image for nearly a decade. The
Grand March on Washington on August 28, 1963, placed an exclamation
point on the crowning achievement of the nonviolent direct
action campaign throughout the South that was led by the Reverend
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was a march for democratic
rights indisputably led by Black people that remains the clearest
example of participatory democracy on a mass scale and the gateway
to the coming of a more inclusive America.

In 1965 “The Great Society” was also launched. Though dramatic
and short lived, eclipsed by the Vietnam War and the subsequent
redirection of the nation’s resources, the clear possibilities of such
a program was evident.

There can be no better example of the spirit of those times than
the North Central Voters League (NCVL), a local effort that emerged
in Saint Paul. Upon reflection, the NCVL seems a virtual paragon
of grassroots activism, akin to many such efforts that were going
on across America. In the fall of 1963, a tiny collection of African
American citizens met at the old Elks Lodge, located on Kent
and Carroll streets, on the ground where the present-day Martin
Luther King Community Recreation Center stands. They joined the
campaign that Martin Luther King hailed as “this marvelous new
militancy emerging among the Negro people.”

Within this budding volunteer leadership organization were
some remarkable souls. They were primarily from working-class
backgrounds. Collectively they were endowed with a high level of
common sense, intelligence, and the kind of wisdom that comes
only from lived experience. While they came from a variety of
occupations in the workaday world, a disproportionate number
had backgrounds in the railroad industry. A few of these men and
women had college backgrounds also. But the main characterization
of their identity was bound to the notion of “everyday people.”
More importantly, these people were largely middle-aged and
beyond.

Ray Hill, Jessie Miller, Robert Anderson, “Blotch” Perkins,
Jester “Rock Bottom” Howell, and Mr. Thurman were some of the
men who provided the leadership at the earliest stage of evolution.
Women such as Charlie Hollins, Joann Favors, and Allie Mae
Hampton came aboard a bit later. The success of grassroots volunteerism
proves that in a society that styles itself a democracy, the
involvement of people at Ralph Ellison’s “lower frequencies” makes
democracy work best. As a volunteer organization, NCVL immediately
involved itself in voter registration campaigns, confronting
the city fathers over their responsibilities to central city dwellers:
Having a stoplight placed at the dangerous intersection of Dale and
Rondo (Concordia), fighting for a library to be placed near Lexington
on University, initiating a dialogue with then Mayor Tom Burns,
and supporting activist Eloise Adams’ struggle to influence the city
to build Oxford Swimming Pool in the Summit-University neighborhood
are but a few examples of political struggles that NCVL
either initiated or supported.

The campaign of Katie McWatt for a seat on the Saint Paul City
Council in 1964 highlights NCVL’s commitment to changing the
power alignment in Saint Paul politics. NCVL was the most visible
and aggressive supporter of the McWatt campaign on every level.
At the time, Katie McWatt was a housewife and mother of four
children. Mrs. McWatt’s campaign represents the beginning of the
continuum of African American candidates running for city council.
She nearly won, coming within a hair of winning an at-large seat!

When President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs got underway,
a strategy for fighting a “war” against poverty was devised.
The jewel among a plethora of other social programs was the Community
Action Program or CAP, as it came to be known. A survey
of segments of deep pockets of poverty was carried out by the
federal government and targeted for government aid throughout
the nation. The most progressive aspect of this attempt to eliminate
poverty was its designation of volunteers—self-motivated,
self-help, nontraditional community-based organizations—as
recipients of funds to improve their efforts and/or initiate other
programs to improve the general welfare of the community. NCVL
was one of the first such community organizations in the nation to
receive a large federal grant as a delegate organization in a designated
target area.

NCVL’s involvement in CAP would change its role somewhat.
CAP did the work of the volunteers with paid staff while still under
the auspices of the board of the volunteer organization (NCVL). It
was agreed to appoint Ray Hill and Jessie Miller, two of the major
founders of NCVL, to head the new CAP agency.

Perhaps the most important, and not necessarily intended,
NCVL contribution to neighborhood, community, and city rests in
the realms of two other activities. First, the organic nature of the
organization appealed to activists across “race” lines. Many individuals
from the white community found the free social spaces in
which to operate at NCVL. Before and after federal funds, there
were white individual NCVL loyalists such as Gale Dietz, a brilliant
artist-activist from White Bear Lake, and Dorothy and Bob Davies.

Second, NCVL provided a Wednesday evening forum that was
unprecedented in the political, social, and racial history of Minnesota.
The forum drew from every quarter, across the spectrum of
“race,” class, and political persuasion. It lasted in some form for
roughly five years (1965–1970). Attendees included Nick Coleman,
a powerful figure in the state legislature and a regular attendee.
The forum turned out to be a very healthy environment for political
debate. The talk was at times sharp, loud, and vociferous, but
never degenerated into the low and vulgar that often is found in
the upper echelons of American politics. The intellectuals were
there from the University of Minnesota and other colleges. Robert
Staples, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, praised
the value of the forum for the insight that participants gave him.
Students from various surrounding colleges, such as Jeannie Gustafson
and others, had a steady presence at the forum. Rosalie
Butler, wife of the very wealthy Walter Butler—a controversial,
enigmatic contrarian in Saint Paul politics—made her presence
felt at the forum. Sandy Keith, later elected to the Minnesota State
Supreme Court and a Kennedy-like candidate for governor, paid a
visit to the forum to launch his campaign in Saint Paul. The late
Andrew Haines, a young African American lawyer, was a forum
participant and an informal advisor to NCVL. Haines would later
become the lone Black professor on the faculty of the Mitchell
School of Law.

It would be impossible to measure the meaning and value of the
forum to the immediate and larger community. Suffice to say, it
was a vehicle or a magnet for drawing great cross sections of unlike
people into the same space. In one sense, NCVL again was in the
vanguard. It anticipated what we call diversity today. The forum
was a result of a natural need, inherent in certain individuals, for
exchange with “the other”—a search for understanding, for unity,
and for simple human connection. Of course, there were awkward
moments of adjustment, given who we are as a nation, created by
script on paper.

All things considered, the forum was a monstrous success. It
was a fine example of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty, from time to time
must be replenished.” Aside from the forum assuming the role of
an informal intermediary structure for political education, there
was direction and intention thrust on education by NCVL. Besides
building a community library within its space, it sponsored freeof-
charge classes in African American history and culture, again
presaging the arrival of this subject in official school curriculum.
Classes were popular, a result of a wide-reaching newspaper article.
The history and culture classes became an unintended outreach
program, drawing a number of whites from nearby suburbs.

It would be safe in saying that NCVL was the spawning ground
for other new programs in the poverty programs. The Model Cities,
Head Start, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition
programs are intrinsically related to the spirit, if not the letter, of
NCVL. Sue Williams, the first director of Head Start, came directly
from the ranks of NCVL.

The names of these champions of yesteryear, who made significant
contributions to community life a generation ago, now fade
from our memories. There are no memorials or statues recognizing
the work and struggle of such responsible citizens, perhaps most of
them gone to the greater beyond. “Nobody knows their names, but
the fruits of their labors are still with us. They were a part of the now
nameless, faceless, tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet,” as Martin
Luther King Jr. described the workers for a better world. These
were the people Dr. King was hailing and saluting when he wrote:

Everybody can be great because everyone can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know about Einstein’s theory of relativity
to serve.
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to
serve.
You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

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