With anticipation and excitement this morning, I headed to the celebration marking the Minnesota Department of Human Rights 50th Anniversary celebration in the new multimillion dollar renovated House of the People.
I went with my husband, Arnie Bigbee, one of the state’s champions for Human Rights who helped Edina pass the first suburb’s Domestic Partnership Ordinance seven years ago when he headed the city’s Human Rights and Relations Commission. We were joined by my sister, Dr. June La Valleur and her husband, Dr. Duane Rost, also two huge proponents of human and sexual rights in Minnesota.
It wasn’t just seeing the gorgeous ubiquitous restoration work throughout the Capitol that I was looking forward to. The program in the rotunda was titled, “Creating a More Perfect Union,” no small order.
Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, who heads up the MDHR, did a fine job of emceeing the event, introducing Gov. Mark Dayton, who briefly addressed the crowd and showed the framed declaration marking the day as Minnesota Department of Human Rights Day.
There were several interesting and historical black-and-white photos on easels surrounding the back half of the circular space highlighting struggles of years gone by. I liked the one of woman voters from the early 1900s. Then there was a portrait of Frank Kent, who was the first African-American to head a state agency (MDHR 1967-1969). Fittingly there was a great photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking against the Vietnam War at the University of Minnesota. The date: April 27, 1967 — 50 years ago today.
I was delightfully surprised and thoroughly enjoyed a short, yet beautiful executed artistic performance by Deneane Richburg dancing to the powerfully spoken words of Thomasina Petrus as part of the celebration.
No doubt most people came to hear the esteemed Dr. Josie Johnson, Minnesota’s most recognized human rights, social justice and civil rights activist who was there at the beginning five decades ago.
Dr. Johnson provided an historical backdrop to the beginnings of the MDHR and spoke about the 1961 State Commission Against Discrimination.
She talked about the jurisdiction of housing and education discrimination, pointing out that, unfortunately, we’re still dealing with things in Minnesota — and I’d include the rest of the country as well — that we thought we’d “dealt with” 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not.
Dr. Duchess Harris with Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA at ABDO and professor and chair of the American Studies Department at Macalester College, gave a 50-year overview of Minnesota protecting human rights emphasizing MDHR’s role as it pertains to the law.
I was pleased to see several legislators, on a short break from their sessions, address the group, especially Sen. Foung Hawj, St. Paul, District 47; Rep. Peggy Flanagan, St. Louis Park, District: 46A and Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, New Brighton, District: 41B.
But it was what was missing that was most noticeable to me as I photographed the event knowing I’d be writing a blog about this momentous occasion. It was all the empty chairs in the rotunda that I couldn’t help but notice. Where were all the people to listen to Dr. Johnson’s stirring words and warnings?
There were probably 40 to 50 people standing while listening to the speakers. But only half the 60 chairs for the “crowd” were occupied.
Looking back to 1965, the population of Minnesota was 3.6 million. The latest census puts our state at 5.5 million people.
What a missed opportunity for our grade school, high school and university student groups to say nothing of the general public to witness this historic occasion!
There were sure a lot more people in the photo to hear Dr. King 50 years ago than turned up today. Dr. Josie Johnson’s message today pointed to the same message of the ’60s: We need to organize.
We obviously have a lot more work to do if we’re going to accomplish “Creating a More Perfect Union.”