The pounding on his front door was persistent, and Oliver Lyle opened it, expecting to be met by a salesman. He feared it could even be the police.
Instead, it was Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris. He had come to right a 50-year-old wrong.
"There he was with a suit on, sticking out his hand to introduce himself and apologize for back then," Lyle said. "I never thought anything like that would ever happen."
Lyle, a Black jazz musician and student, was pulled over nine times in six weeks in 1969 while traveling from his apartment in Minneapolis' Dinkytown to the Point Supper Club in Golden Valley, where he performed. He sued several Golden Valley police officers for depriving him of his civil rights, arguing they had exhibited a "pattern of prejudice" by repeatedly harassing him.
"They had like a border check between Minneapolis and Golden Valley," Lyle said. "See a Black person, pull them over. And they would have the audacity to ask, 'Are you lost?' "
For Harris, Golden Valley's mayor for nearly a decade, the moment of atonement with Lyle last year was the missing, long overdue piece in a broader ongoing effort at racial reconciliation.
The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 has cities across the country taking a hard look at the treatment of people of color by law enforcement.
After the formal apology, Golden Valley has moved forward with hiring an equity coordinator to diversify the city's workforce, including the police department — where 92% of the 26 sworn officers are white — and has formed an oversight commission for the department. In September, the city received a $250,000 public safety grant to fund the commission, as well as an equity audit of police policies and practices that includes training to combat systemic racism.
Lyle said the conduct and reputation of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of Floyd's killing, was reminiscent of one of the Golden Valley officers. Every city needs cops, he said, but police "just need to clean house" to prevent history from repeating itself. And for that to happen, Lyle said, departments must get rid of bad cops and encourage good cops to speak out.
"I think one of the worst enemies of police departments is this thing called code of silence," he said, referring to how some police officers are reluctant to report misconduct in their ranks. "[It] goes back generations and generations of policing. And I just think it's unfortunate, because things need to improve and can't improve with bad players on the police department."
As mayor, Harris had heard about a federal civil rights case in the city from long ago. But he never knew about Lyle.
When he knocked on Lyle's door a few weeks after Floyd's death, the 79-year-old musician was putting the final touches on his new novel, "A Valley Too Far," based on his experience with Golden Valley police. The book is as much about jazz and romance as it is about justice, but Lyle said its release this past spring could not have been more timely.
Harris said he is now determined to set the record straight about how Golden Valley police mistreated people of color in the past. At the time of Lyle's lawsuit, the city's police department had received more complaints than any other department in the metro area. According to the suit, more than one of every five people arrested in Golden Valley at the time was Black, even though there were only 59 African Americans then living among the city's 24,250 residents.
"I read the court record summary, and that's when it hit me," Harris said. "Somewhere in that summary was the $4,000. This is not an apology or an acknowledgment of any misdoings. This is a historical wrong that has never been corrected."
A constant target
An all-white jury found Golden Valley Police Chief Everett Frandsen and three officers guilty of conspiring against Lyle, then 28, who was awarded $4,000. The case is noteworthy in Minnesota's civil rights history, said Jim Hilbert, a professor and vice dean at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, because people of color in 1970 did not have equal access to the court system.
"Think of all the barriers, and Mr. Lyle overcame them all," Hilbert said. "He took on the system. And convinced not just a lawyer, not just an all-white jury, but also a judge that justice needed to be served."
Lyle grew up in south Minneapolis with six siblings after his parents moved there from Memphis. Along with his brother, famed jazz pianist Bobby Lyle, he learned to play the piano from their mother Elise, a church organist. He graduated from Minneapolis Central High School in 1960 and after he was drafted in 1964, he joined the Army band. Music, Lyle said, saved him from going to Vietnam.
After his service Lyle enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he studied sociology and juggled homework with jazz gigs. In 1969, he joined a band playing at the former Point Supper Club in Golden Valley, a short drive from his apartment in Dinkytown. But he was constantly targeted by police, pulled over and searched, often making him late for performances.
"As I remember, on the way to jail I told the officers that I'd see them in court, and they laughed," he told a reporter 50 years ago. "I was anxious as to whether they laughed because they thought that was a silly thing for anyone to say, or because I was a Negro and they thought I wouldn't have a chance before a judge."
After a two-week trial, jurors deliberated for 3 ½ days before finding the police chief and three officers guilty of conspiring to deprive him of his civil rights. They awarded Lyle $4,000. "Black musician hails moral victory," read the headline in the Minneapolis Star.
Half the arrests made on people of color in Golden Valley were by three of the officers the jury found liable: Ronald Pavlock, David Niebur and James Zelinsky. Niebur later racked up more than 40 complaints from 1975 to 1988 while serving with the Minneapolis police.
"Most people who were harassed those days didn't go to court because they were afraid, because it was hard to get a lawyer to believe them, because they didn't believe it would do anything," Hilbert said.
Although he was not required by law, the judge also authorized $1,000 in fees to Lyle's attorney William Merlin. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act didn't pass until 1976.
"It's a case that I think all Minnesotans ought to remember and know in honor of Mr. Lyle for the courage he showed to take a stand and essentially hold the old racist police accountable," Hilbert said.
The judge denied the officers' motion to throw out the verdict. But the City Council and mayor approved a resolution saying the officers had acted in good faith and sent to residents an eight-page pamphlet, "It Happened in Golden Valley," that nodded to racial tension in the city but essentially "absolv[ed] the policemen and plac[ed] the blame against 'the village as a whole,' " according to the Minneapolis Star.
Lyle got the pamphlet but not the apology. Five years later, he moved to Golden Valley, where he lived with his late wife Georgia and remains to this day, not far from Harris' home.
"Once you get into a place and clean it out," Lyle said, "then it's OK to live there."
Harris acknowledged some "trepidation" in approaching Lyle's front door that day, because of the trauma that Lyle experienced decades ago and every time a Black person is killed or wronged by police.
But Lyle welcomed Harris into his home and accepted his apology.
"That is a testament to Ollie's character," Harris said. "Here is someone who had to take a city to court because of the color of his skin. Yet, he still lives in the very same city that wronged him many years ago. That takes courage."
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751