June 15, 1920, will forever stand as one of the darkest days in Minnesota history.
One hundred years ago, a white mob in Duluth abducted and lynched Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie after they were wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Activists have rightly fought to ensure that their memory is not forgotten. The memorial at First Street and Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth calls us to remember the murder of those three young black men, reflect on our nation’s ongoing struggle with racism and white supremacy, and to speak out against injustice.
Of course, this centennial comes just after we witnessed another murder of a black man in Minnesota today. As Twin Cities PBS Senior Producer Daniel Bergin observed:
“As we remember Clayton, Jackson and McGhie at the centennial of their terrible lynching on June 15, 1920, we are also mourning George Floyd’s police killing under the knee of systemic racism. We are experiencing – in literal, figurative and visceral ways – the presence of the past in present tense.”
Indeed, while racial injustice persists in our society, we must celebrate justice when possible.
Duluth’s Jordan Moses helped bring a measure of justice to Max Mason, a poor African-American laborer from the South who was wrongly convicted of participating in the alleged assault by an all-white Duluth jury. We note with appreciation that on Friday, the Minnesota Board of Pardons granted the posthumous pardon application — the first posthumous pardon granted in Minnesota history.
We are grateful for the advocacy of attorneys Jerry Blackwell and (who argued on behalf of the petition before the Pardons Board) and Corey Gordon who wrote an extraordinary brief (see page 16) and all those who contributed to the effort. In partnership with the Twin Cities Cardozo Society, the JCRC was proud to submit a letter (see pages 84-86) to the Minnesota Board of Pardons in support of a posthumous pardon for Mr. Mason.
We are also pleased to serve on the community committee chaired by Chief Judge John Tunheim of the Federal District of Minnesota to plan programming and education around this somber centennial commemoration at a time when this profound abdication of the rule of law, due process, and fairness of 100 years ago has echoed loudly through recent events.
The keynote of that programming was to include an address by Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney and founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, to thousands of Minnesotans in Duluth today. The in-person event is postponed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, you can listen to Mr. Stevenson’s call for truth and reconciliation in an address he gave in Minnesota in 2014 that re-aired on MPR News Presents earlier today.
The mission of Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Inc. is “to foster racial justice and promote healing and reconciliation in our community.” That mission is as critical as ever and the work belongs to all of us.
To close, I echo the prayer of Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who wrote on Twitter this morning:
“Today we remember. And we recommit. These men were sons and brothers and friends to others. They were loved. Their mothers held them in their arms the same way we hold our babies today. May the light of these men shine bright on our collective path ahead. Amen.”