Minnesota celebrates summer of civil rights


At the Minneapolis Convention Center on July 31, the City of Minneapolis and civil rights agencies from across the state hosted a Closing Ceremony to their Minnesota Summer of Civil Rights in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Throughout the summer of 2014, many civil rights organizations collectively hosted community events around the Twin Cities – including at the State Capitol, the University of Minnesota, and William Mitchell College of Law – to increase awareness of the legislation’s continuing legacy.

The closing ceremony celebrated both the historical milestones of the past and recognized the importance of instilling tenacity and fortitude in the youth of today. The event was even kicked-off with an inspiring musical performance by a group of young scholars from the St. Paul Freedom School.

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The Civil Rights Act was a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended the unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools and workplaces.

“The passing of the Civil Rights Act is an important day for all of us to remember and one of the most important milestones in the history of our country,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “The work that we do today is just as important as it was 50 years ago. Currently, our schools are the central battleground.”

Keynote speaker Eric Mahmoud, founder and president of the SEED Academy and Harvest Preparatory Schools, has long been a leader and champion for African-American education in north Minneapolis. He firmly believes that providing youth with an adequate education, and giving them confidence in their own abilities, are the best ways to improve how we inspire upcoming generations.

“It amazes me when you think about all of the people who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe in,” said Mahmoud. “We have made a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go. When we talk about the achievement gap, it’s an issue with us adults, not a problem with the child.”

The Minnesota Summer of Civil Rights Closing Ceremony also honored one of the state’s most celebrated civil rights leaders, Dr. Josie Johnson. Johnson was the first African-American member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and her extensive career as an activist for equality has spanned five decades. Johnson led the Minnesota delegation to the historic March on Washington in 1963 and a year later conducted a fact-finding mission to Mississippi during the volatile Freedom Summer.

“True freedom is education, and voting is true citizenship,” said Johnson. “We must pick up the challenge that our ancestors have handed to us. Voting must become synonymous with citizenship, and educating our children about their history, must become synonymous with freedom.”

Johnson continues to speak out against civil rights and voting injustices, particularly against a recent United States Supreme Court decision to eliminate a key voter protection law. When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, its actual powers of enforcement were initially rather weak but were strengthened over time through various legislations. On June 25, 2013, in the Shelby County v. Holder ruling, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court struck down a significant portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The decision removed the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination get pre-approval for any voting law changes from the federal government. Many states, predominantly in the South, took the advantage of the resulting gap to enact discriminatory voting laws.

“The decisions of our leaders have shown us that they are willing to sacrifice the good of the many, for the beliefs of a few,” said Johnson. “We have come too far in the struggle in honoring our ancestors’ sacrifice to turn back now. We must overcome all of the obstacles that society tries to put in our way.”

However, the decision does give Congress an opportunity to pass a new set of protections that could work together to guarantee the right to vote. A bipartisan bill, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, is currently under Congressional committee review. The legislation would provide the United States Department of Justice with the ability to enforce voting right protections.

“One of the gifts of the Civil Rights Act is the knowledge that we can come together to honor the values of our community through government,” said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. “This is about reclaiming the heart and soul of every person in the community. That is the work this generation is charged with.”