It was a day both monumental and mundane.
The cases on the Minneapolis conciliation court docket included a furniture upholsterer accusing a client of insufficient pay. Another concerned mechanics’ work on a troublesome auto transmission. Then there was the pair of pants allegedly cleaned improperly at a city laundry.
First, though, Municipal Judge L. Howard Bennett had to contend with a finicky button on his black robe in Room 432 of Minneapolis City Hall.
“That top hole bothers me, too,” Judge Tom Bergin said, before swearing in Bennett as Minnesota’s first black judge on Jan. 6, 1958. “May you wear the robe with pride, dignity and honor.”
The grandson of a slave, Bennett became a double barrier-breaker five years later when he won a seat as the first black member elected to the Minneapolis school board in 1963.
During an influential career, Bennett forged friendships with African-American giants W.E.B. DuBois and the Rev. Martin Luther King — not to mention former Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
But one of Bennett’s favorite quotes came a century earlier from Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary … and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”
Born in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 22, 1913, Bennett was a minister’s son who used his middle name — Howard — instead of his given name, Lowell.
“Howard was my mother’s maiden name,” he said. “In fact, I never knew what my first name was until I graduated from high school.”
He headed to Nashville during the Great Depression, graduating from Fisk University in 1935. One summer, he worked for the college’s maintenance team, painting buildings and washing walls because the poor economy no longer provided more lucrative jobs on the railroads and steamships.
He steadily carved out a career as a civil rights advocate, first in the South and then in Minneapolis. He helped set up the Council on Human Relations during Humphrey’s stint as Minneapolis mayor in the 1940s. After earning a law degree and a master’s in political science from the University of Chicago, Bennett moved to Minneapolis in 1950 to practice law.
Gov. Orville Freeman appointed him to the municipal bench in 1957 after Bennett directed the local branch of the NAACP and the Urban League.
Not all his cases involved minor complaints about pants and transmissions. In 1959, a fight between strikers and non-strikers erupted at General Mills Plant No. 5. Bennett sentenced one of the non-strikers to 15 days in the workhouse after police found a socket wrench in his glove and a picketer wound up with two crescent-shaped cuts to his face.
A letter to the editor said Bennett’s ruling “does not exactly inspire confidence that he will be fair and impartial if elected” to a second term.
Bennett’s time on the bench lasted only two years, with voters ousting him during a re-election bid. He bounced back with his victory in the 1963 school board election. But only a few months later, President John Kennedy tapped him to join the U.S. Defense Department as a civil rights expert.
Jet magazine in 1966 listed Bennett as a top name under consideration in a “furious behind-the-scene power struggle’’ between Vice President Humphrey and Sen. Robert Kennedy, neither of whom had people of color on their senior staffs dominated by what the magazine called “lily-whitism.”
By 1969, Bennett — a lifelong Democrat — found himself working in the Pentagon in President Nixon’s Republican administration as racial violence swelled in the military during the Vietnam War. He attributed a rash of more than 100 black-on-white assaults in the military in 1969 to an unwillingness among black troops to put up with the discrimination their predecessors long endured.
In a 12-month stretch starting in 1967, Bennett directed a civil rights team that investigated 22 mainland bases and traveled to installations in Europe and Southeast Asia.
“The men often feel they have no one they can talk to about racial complaints without fear of retaliation or reprimand,” he said.
When some black troops requested separate barracks and mess halls, Bennett shook his head: “We have fought too long for desegregation in the military. We are not going to go backwards.”
After his retirement in the 1970s, Bennett bought a nursing home in Pensacola, Fla. That was the hometown of his wife, Marian, his college sweetheart whom he met in the 1930s at Fisk. He died in 1993 at 80. She died nearly 20 years later, leaving behind their daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
At a 1964 Fisk commencement speech in Nashville, six months before becoming vice president, Sen. Humphrey brought up the name of the school’s most prestigious alumni. Humphrey said his “good friend,” L. Howard Bennett was among those “relegating the myths of racism to the ash heap of history.”
Back on that first day as a judge in 1958, once he got the robe buttoned, Bennett spoke with Minneapolis Star reporter Ralph Clark at the lunch recess.
“Quite interesting,” he summed up his morning in a way that would describe his entire career. “Some of these claims have more ‘heat’ involved than money value. ... A judge has to be prepared to hear all cases. It’s broad and deep work.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.