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MN VOICES | Mahmoud El-Kati's half century as educator and activist in the Twin Cities
Mahmoud El-Kati has an interesting face. He looks stern until he smiles, which he does frequently, and he maintains a direct gaze animated by the rise and fall of his arched brow; it expresses the intellectual nature of a man who has worked hard as an educator and civil rights activist over the past 50 years in the Twin Cities. That face will be the subject of a sculpture portrait titled “Faces of Rondo.” The piece, which will be installed at the Victoria Station light rail station, will honor a group of individuals who have had a positive impact on the Rondo community.
El-Kati is a Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College, a noted essayist, speaker, honoree of Macalester’s Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies and an author. His most recent book is Haiti: The Hidden Truth (2010). Besides El-Kati, other “Faces of Rondo” honorees include people such as Billy Williams, an African-American executive political assistant; Pearla Mae Barnes, active in the foster care system; and Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre. Foster Willey Jr., the sculptor chosen to create the art, collaborated with a Central Corridor station art committee made up of community members who chose the subjects for the bas-relief sculpture portrait.
Rondo is the name of the community that was once centered on Rondo Avenue, the main artery of St. Paul’s black community. El-Kati’s connection to Rondo started when he moved to the Twin Cities from Cleveland with his young family in the late 1950s.  He arrived in time to see Rondo, “as the community knew it,” be demolished by the construction of Interstate 94. He said, “The Rondo I saw had Field’s Drug Store, a confectionary, a barbershop, an American Legion, The Turtle Club (an underground nightclub)...”
From his roots in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, El-Kati grew into an important community activist in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, from the heated years of the 1960s civil rights movement through today. In an interview with the Twin Cities Daily Planet, El-Kati outlined “four major events.” events that helped shape his life in the community.
“I didn’t just come to the Twin Cities for a job. I looked for an activist community,” said El-Kati. “I immediately met people when I came, people like Katie McWatt. She was a great activist — ... a teacher, a social worker.” He remembers her as a kindred spirit. “We both liked books and I helped her campaign.” He connected with other important community leaders too, such as Cecil Newman, founder of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. “Cecil gave me the lay of the land,” said El-Kati.
While he worked at the St. Paul Rehabilitation Center as a psychological counselor, El Kati became involved in some of the seminal groups doing civil rights work in the Twin Cities. He taught classes at schools and community centers such as Hallie Q. Brown and became one of the youngest members of the North Central Voters League (NCVL).
El-Kati described it as a group “made up initially of working class men — porters on the trains — for example who met at St. Paul’s old Elks Lodge. They took time to form an all-volunteer organization to help the community with voter registration." The league quickly saw its role expanding. It was 1965 and El-Kati described the time as one when, “Things were coinciding. The progressive community, across the [color] lines, was nudging democracy forward.” The NCVL’s Wednesday evening forums drew a diverse crowd, including students and college professors; lawyers and politicians such as state legislator Nick Coleman and Lieutenant Governor Sandy Keith, who later served on the state supreme court. According to El-Kati, “If you considered yourself liberal, it was the only dance in town. It was a democracy movement not just about blacks.”  He remembered that time vividly as, “one of the most inspiring moments of my life — the grassroots people took a leadership role and brought people together to discuss critical issues of the day.”
“It helped transform the community,” said El-Kati. He pointed out that NCVL was one of the first community groups in the nation to receive a grant as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty program. The NCVL became a “delegate agency” to the Community Action Program (CAP). The people and programs that grew out of that were the “pacesetters,” according to El-Kati.
The next important step in community activism for El-Kati was his involvement with the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OIC). The OIC was a national network of employment and training centers to serve the poor and unemployed, founded by Reverend Leon Howard Sullivan, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. El Kati described it as “a powerful thing...The Twin Cities was in the vanguard.” El-Kati was brought in to teach in the OIC’s Adult Armchair Education Program. In his African-American history classes, taught in diverse neighborhoods, including suburbs such as Edina, El-Kati sought to address, as he still does, an information deficit: “By and large, white people know nothing about this history. Black people don’t know enough about the history of slavery. It affected everybody, business and industry.”
In 1966, El-Kati’s community activism became a full-time commitment when he connected with Syl Davis, who had a radio show on KUXL. Davis was starting a North Minneapolis organization called The Way. A year or so after meeting Davis, El-Kati left his job as a psychological counselor and took a pay cut to run The Way’s education department and to participate full time “in our movement.” He said, “It was an opportunity to make my avocation my vocation.” El-Kati said that The Way was founded on “radical”  principles of African-American politics, culture and history. El-Kati explained, “By ‘radical’ I mean you’re dealing with the roots of a question. Radical means fundamental.”
He set up The Way’s education department based on ”black people’s experience in the U.S. and in Africa.” There were classes, plays by black playwrights, and performances by black dance troupes. They brought in progressive politicians to speak and ran a successful prison education program. El-Kati said, “We were about self assertion, self definition and self affirmation.”
At first, the organization had broad support from the community, including wealthy members of the elite, such as Louise Walker, on their board. But many started to leave when the organization was perceived as “in step with the Black Power Movement,” according to El-Kati. He said, “It was 1965 to 1969--that’s the cauldron I came out of.”
The fourth major event in El-Kati’s formation as a community activist came when the University of Minnesota hired him as an assistant professor in the African American Studies Department. El-Kati explained that it was thanks to the University of Minnesota’s Afro-American Action Committee (AAAC, formerly the Black Student Union) that change was taking place on campus.
El-Kati was there when, in January 1969, a group of students, led by Rose Massey Freeman and Horace Huntley, took over University of Minnesota administrators’ offices in Morrill Hall and refused to leave until a list of demands was met.
At the time, he said, “They [black college students] were learning nothing about themselves. They demanded changes: in the curriculum, they wanted more black professors, more students from the underclass, a Martin Luther King program, an African American studies department with full status (not a program that is “here today, gone tomorrow”). They wanted the athletes to be treated like human beings.”
From 1970 to 2003, El-Kati taught courses in African American experience and social movements at Macalester College in St. Paul. In 2007, the college established the Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies.
El-Kati described a life that has been one of constant struggle for social justice. In more recent years, he has been noted for his scholarship and, although largely retired, he continues to write, speak and lecture. He will be honored on April 23 with the St. Paul Foundation's 2012 Facing Race Ambassador Award.
When asked, “Where are we today in the battle against racism?” he quotes an old saying: “We ain’t where we wanna be, or oughta be. Thank God we ain’t where we was.” He added, “We need to have some serious discussions about critical issues —rational discussions about racism and — racism is not rational.”
CORRECTION 4/18: Katie McWatt was an activist, a teacher, a social worker.
© 2012 Lisa Steinmann