Reminders of the one-time giant Control Data Corp. (CDC) can be seen all over the Twin Cities, from a street named Computer Avenue in Edina to its gleaming Bloomington headquarters that is now home to HealthPartners.
The former Control Data North Side plant in Minneapolis is still there, too, now housing a school. It lies between the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis and neighborhoods just to the northwest where frustrations among blacks in Minneapolis had boiled over in 1967.
The leaders of Control Data watched what happened that summer and opened that plant to hire people from the nearby neighborhoods in 1968.
This history suddenly feels relevant again, after Minneapolis and St. Paul just experienced the biggest protests against racial injustice since that era.
Even the largest companies with the most forward-thinking leaders have looked flat-footed in response. Expressions of grief and horror, yes, as more than 50 Minnesota executives explained in a joint statement.
They added that the necessary change “needs to start with us.” If any have announced any ambitious new efforts, it’s escaped my attention.
Big companies, like Control Data in its prime and those on the top of the Star Tribune 50, are the businesses that can make a good-sized dent in a problem. Among other things, they have the money and management expertise to try something big.
Control Data is almost all gone now, but at one time it employed more than 25,000 Minnesotans. It did not even take 10 years, from its 1957 start, to first appear on the famous Fortune 500 ranking.
The motivation of CDC co-founder and CEO Bill Norris seemed to undergo a shift in the late 1960s even as the North Side project was already underway, as described by historian Thomas Misa in his excellent book “Digital State,” on Minnesota’s computer industry.
Norris clearly saw a chance to make money with the plant, and get some government-training funds for workers. Yet by 1968 he had a much deeper commitment to the North Side plant and other projects like it.
He wrote a colleague that the “poverty and riot situation has gotten so bad that it is by all odds the number one problem for Control Data. We are in the fortunate position of having a little bit of a jump on the situation, but Control Data has to do much, much more.”
When he wrote an essay about it a decade later, Norris did not talk about racism, the legacy of housing discrimination in the Twin Cities nor any other root causes. Instead, he simply called the people of Minneapolis he wanted to help “disadvantaged.”
That’s no longer a fashionable term, but the word clearly establishes that there are Americans born with advantages they didn’t earn and others born with disadvantages they didn’t deserve.
Control Data laid out some principles to make the North Side plant a success, starting with making a product important to its customers to keep management’s full attention. There would be no compromises on quality or productivity.
The company knew it had to train workers and assigned a lawyer to help them with what Norris called “an unusual amount of legal hassle with landlords and stores.” And finally, the company’s managers realized that workers needed convenient child care.
Control Data eventually created a slew of ventures that could be fit under the umbrella of social programs, although this era did not last long. Control Data spent much of the 1980s restructuring and basically trying to stay afloat, making those initiatives look like distractions.
But Control Data was ambitious. Who in the Twin Cities business community will be that ambitious today?
One of the best things I have recently seen written about the current state of racial injustice is that just by being here we can become part of the problem. We are quick to blame others, and today that blame is heaped on the Minneapolis cop who kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd. But another leader in another civil conflict, the fight for freedom in Eastern Europe not long ago, knew better.
The Czech writer Václav Havel in 1978 wrote an essay that described a grocery manager putting up a tired communist slogan in the shop window. The grocer didn’t believe the slogan, of course. He was only showing he hoped to get along in the world. And the grocer reasoned that customers wouldn’t even notice it and likely had similar posters where they worked.
Havel showed that people do not have to wholeheartedly buy into the lie to become part of the problem. They just had to be willing to take their own place within it.
Like Havel’s grocer, many of us have a hard time even noticing that Americans don’t all have an equal shot and deny, despite the evidence, that some people are “disadvantaged,” as Bill Norris might’ve put it.
We don’t have to believe that, but if the days turn into months and then years as nothing really changes, it’s not them anymore. It’s us.
Norris and Control Data maybe didn’t solve much half a century ago. They did, however, recognize they had to really try.