Black History Month means little if all we do is celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. without also celebrating the success stories of Black Americans he helped make possible. There is nothing more appropriate this year than to celebrate the success stories of Alex Jackson, the first African American fire chief in the city of Minneapolis, and John Lyght, the first and only African American to be elected as sheriff of a Minnesota county.
John Lyght was born and raised in nearly all-White Cook County along the North Shore of Lake Superior. A pioneering legend in Minnesota law enforcement, Lyght died January 15 at age 82. He held office for over 22 years, elected with 97.4 percent of the vote.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Sheriff John Lyght in the late 1970s, when he used to visit the state capitol when he served on the State Committee on Law Enforcement. Over the next 20 years, I had the opportunity to visit with him on my travels into that part of Minnesota.
He was a gentle giant. His parents had moved from Pennsylvania to Minnesota in 1913. He was an integral part of Cook County, and was well respected in the law enforcement community, as he protected the Cook County residents’ franchise.
Hopefully there will be an enshrinement of his tenure and his legacy as a Minnesota first. Sheriff Lyght did proud by his profession as he built his legacy.
The history of Alex Jackson, our fire chief, moves along a parallel path. See my columns of June 18, 2008 (“Long chain of perseverance led to new Fire Chief Jackson”) and December 30, 2009 (“Historic Success Story: Integration of the Minneapolis Fire Dept.”).
Chief Jackson is a native-born Minnesotan, a man who came up through the ranks, a man given guidance by the legendary Rocko Forte, chief of the fire department in the 1990s and a man who opened the door wide for the continued diversification of the Minneapolis Fire Department.
In the year and a half that he has been fire chief, Jackson has maintained the legacy of Carter vs. Gallagher, the landmark court decision of 1972 that integrated this department.
John and Alex share a similar legacy. They are Minnesota firsts. They did their jobs with integrity and effectiveness. Yet so little is known about them, as it seems White Minnesota only wants to hear about a person of color’s missteps, news items centered in the spotlight of controversy and analysis.
Young men and women of all colors and races need to know about these great Americans, these great Minnesotans. They need to know they too can be successful. It serves no purpose to talk of their success after they are dead and gone, for it is when they are alive that our young people can hear from them.
During this period of honoring King and Black history, there has been no recognition of these native sons of Minnesota. It bears repeating: John Lyght was the first and only Black elected sheriff in this state’s history.
Too many of our so-called Black leadership groups are jealous of those who are successful in more than being self-proclaimed victims. In fearing and thus ignoring doers, our true heritage is denied to our young people.
John Lyght has departed this life. Chief Alex Jackson is still with us and, with God’s blessing, shall have a long and successful career. When will both Black and White Minneapolis celebrate and utilize the success story that Chief Jackson represents?
Coming up through the ranks of his department, Chief Jackson has maintained and managed during a time of severe economic downturn. In these tough economic times, times that are also bringing violence and anger to our city and state, you would think that we would want to recognize and embrace these two great Americans, these two great Minnesotans, who understand how to get the job done.
We need to tap into the success and style of Chief Alex Jackson, just as we need to remember a pioneer of the Minnesota experience, Sheriff John Lyght, who made history, who retained his integrity and dignity living an American success story.
That’s what it’s all about it isn’t it, my friends? Stay tuned.
As we go to press, a seventh Black male has fallen victim to homicide since the beginning of the year.
Ron hosts “Black Focus” on Channel 17, MTN-TV, Sundays, 5-6 pm. Formerly head of key civil rights organizations, including the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, he continues his “watchdog” role for Minneapolis. Order his books at www.BeaconOnTheHill.com; hear his readings and read his solution papers and “web log” at www.TheMinneapolisStory.com.