OPINION | Civil rights becoming expendable in Minnesota

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Minneapolis narrowly escaped losing much of its Civil Rights Department when the city council, by the smallest of margins, voted to reject a proposal to turn over the investigative duties of that department to the State. The rationale for the proposal was cited as a means of cutting the City budget to reduce the operating costs of City government during these times of economic downturn. 


This suggestion comes on the heels of the City of St. Paul finding it necessary to restructure its Civil Rights Department in such a manner that compelled its longtime executive director, Tyrone Terrill, to resign and not apply to head the new department, renamed the Department of Human Rights.


Terrill, a veteran of the civil rights profession, is well regarded in the Twin Cities as a community leader. The pattern seems to be that when governments have financial problems, the first thing to go is the item that they see as least important.


For many of us who have labored for years to improve the standing of civil rights in the state, this comes as a shock. It is indeed a sad commentary to realize that the power structures of the major cities of the state still consider equal opportunities for all of its citizens the most vulnerable item for elimination.


It also seems an indication of how far the Twin Cities area has slipped in regards to civil rights projections. Back in the so-called “Golden Years” of the Civil Rights Revolution, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, stood out as a national example.


Under the leadership of then-mayor Hubert Humphrey, Minneapolis became one of the first cities in the country to enact a fair employment ordinance. Humphrey later was to endear himself further in civil rights when he stole the show at the 1968 Democratic Convention with a soul-searing speech demanding the party abandon states’ rights advocacy and embrace civil rights.


So effective was Humphrey’s speech that it induced the southern delegation to walk out of the convention and form their own “Dixiecrat Party” choosing Strom Thurmond as their candidate for president. The incident generated momentum that was helpful in setting the tone for subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Therefore, it is sad to see civil rights legislation in the Twin Cities being relegated to an expendable item. When the Martin Luther King holiday comes around, I wonder how many of those city council persons who voted to cut the department can sing “We Shall Overcome” with a straight face.


Matthew Little welcomes reader responses to mlittle@spokesman-recorder.com.