Thousands of Minnesotans, some of them at state-sanctioned events and others taking to the streets, marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday with both a glance back at the civil rights leader’s achievements and a hard look ahead at the racial challenges that remain.
At a breakfast in Minneapolis attended by state and local leaders, about 2,000 people heard civil rights activist Vernon Jordan declare that King would “share tears of joy” at seeing President Obama take the oath of office, and “shed tears of sorrow” over state registration laws that he believes are designed to discourage minorities from voting.
A few hours later, another crowd estimated at more than 2,000 conducted a peaceful march from the Midway area in St. Paul to the State Capitol, where they held a candlelight vigil in memory of Marcus Golden, a 24-year-old African-American who was shot and killed by St. Paul police last week after he allegedly threatened them.
“What better thing than to be a part of history,” Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said as he participated in the march. Martin has called for an independent investigation into the circumstances of Golden’s death.
Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the civil disobedience group that organized the event, did not obtain a permit, typically required for public assemblies of more than 25 people. But Sgt. Paul Paulos, a spokesman for the St. Paul police, said early in the day that officers would “make sure that the participants have a safe event.”
Police said no one was arrested during the four-hour march and rally. But at least one marcher was pulled off the light-rail tracks by an officer as a train approached.
At one point along the way, marchers veered off their presumed course down University Avenue and moved toward Interstate 94. But they were blocked by lines of state troopers on the freeway ramps, prompting them to make their way back to University for the rest of the 4-mile trek to the State Capitol.
The march came a month after demonstrations led by Black Lives, protesting police violence against blacks, disrupted shopping at the Mall of America and shut down a stretch of Interstate 35W in Minneapolis. It came amid a national debate about the treatment of blacks and other minorities by police, along with nagging racial disparities in employment, health and education.
Black Lives demonstrators on Monday conducted two “die-ins” — one on a freeway overpass in the middle of the afternoon march and another in front of the state’s top leaders at a morning King Day program at Macalester College.
Later, the group issued a statement accusing Gov. Mark Dayton, who was at the program, of failing to back up his words with action to erase racial inequality. The governor’s “silence will leave a black mark on his legacy and only serves to trivialize the legacy of Dr. King,” the statement said.
Black Lives Matter also issued a list of 11 “demands to empower and protect our communities,” topped by “an immediate end to the unjust police murders of unarmed black people.” Other demands included legislation to outlaw racial profiling by police, creation of an independent community board to review police actions, repeal of ordinances against conduct such as loitering that might be used to harass minorities, and statewide adoption of body cameras by police.
The governor’s office had no comment Monday.
‘Not blind rage’
Monday afternoon’s demonstration, called “#ReclaimMLK,” was expected to be more unpredictable than the King breakfast and march re-enactment at Macalester earlier in the day.
The breakfast featured Josie Robinson Johnson, the first black woman to serve on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. Johnson, who advocated for fair housing and employment opportunities and has been called the “First Lady of Minnesota Civil Rights,” received the Lifetime Local Legend award.
Jordan urged responsible protest.
“The system cries out for reform, but it calls for wise actions, not rash actions. Measured responses, not blind rage,” he told the audience. “Rioting is not the solution. Burning up our own neighborhoods is not the solution. Blaming the police or cursing the police are not the solutions.”
The Macalester event, which began with a musical performance and a brief neighborhood march, was packed with dignitaries. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said major social changes, such as blacks and women earning the right to vote or gay people being granted the right to get married, have come from loud movements and not just conversations.
“Sometimes they disrupt traffic, they make a lot of noise,” he said. “They’re trying to gather our attention.”
The afternoon march began after a large crowd gathered at Snelling and University avenues, with the expectation they would move east toward the State Capitol.
Instead, they went south and tried to get past troopers who had formed a line on the freeway ramp.
When that failed, marchers headed east on Concordia Avenue, with standoffs between protesters and troopers at the freeway ramps along the way.
Officials briefly halted traffic on I-94 as a precaution and told protesters that they would be subject to arrest if they entered the freeway.
In the meantime, police put out the word to drivers to use alternate routes, and Metro Transit officials delayed trains as needed to ensure safety.
Martin said the sight of troopers blocking freeway ramps was “eye opening. … Even though you are Up North, they got Down South tactics.” He added that St. Paul police were handling the crowds appropriately.
The marchers, after trying in vain to get onto the freeway, had returned to University by way of Hamline Avenue, where they halted briefly to stage a “die-in” on the overpass that crosses I-94.
Protesters called out “I can’t breathe,” the words used by a black New York man put in a chokehold last summer by police during an arrest. The man later died.
They also stopped outside the St. Paul police western district office, where they chanted: “If we don’t get no justice, they don’t get no peace.”
At various points, leaders played music over speakers and sang, and over one 15-minute stretch led an impromptu dance party at Lexington Parkway.
Ericka Cullars-Golden, the mother of Marcus Golden and a member of the St. Paul police reserves, was among the marchers, saying she was there “to support everyone in the cause.”
At times, marchers broke out in chants of “Marcus Golden matters!”
Later, at the candlelight vigil on the State Capitol steps, organizer Mica Grimm said the march was about contemplating both the challenges and successes. She urged the crowd to look around and see each other as a community. “This is family,” she said.
Staff writers Erin Golden, Libor Jany and Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.