“I’m an addict of history,” says Minnesota historian Rhoda Gilman, the author of Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition, in a Minnesota 2020 video interview. Her book, published in 2012 by the Minnesota Historical Society, draws on that addiction and on Gilman’s passion for progressive politics to “connect the dots” and portray protest as central to Minnesota’s history.
Gilman starts the story with the land giveaways and dispossession of Native Americans prior to 1862 and the landmark events of the Homestead Act and the Dakota War in that year. She traces the convoluted pro- and anti-slavery politics of Minnesota parties and politicians, and acknowledges early crusaders, such as abolitionist and feminist Jane Grey Swisshelm.
From Ignatius Donnelly to Floyd B. Olson and Hubert Humphrey, the book gives due credit to giants of the populist and progressive movements in Minnesota. More notable, however, is the introduction and credit it gives to figures not as well-known today: Farmer Labor Senator Henrik Shipstead; Granger Oliver Kelley; Communist Party leader Arvo Gus Hallberg (better known as Gus Hall), Iron Range Congressman “Little Johnny” Bernard (who served only one term because of his role in preventing U.S. aid to Franco); writers Marian and Meridel LeSueur (the targets of red-baiting) and the Willmar 8.
Not only individuals but movements and parties get the same careful exposition: the National Grange, the Knights of Labor, the radical Republicans of the 1870s, the Non-Partisan League, Farmer Labor party, and the constantly splintering, battling and realigning communist parties, including socialists, Leninist communists, Trotskyists, Finns and Swedes.
The Farm Holiday movement and penny auctions of the early 1930s coincided with a major strike at Hormel, successfully mediated by Farmer Labor party governor Floyd B. Olson. The contrast between Olson’s leadership during this strike presents an inescapable contrast with the later Hormel strike and DFL governor Rudy Perpich sending in the National Guard in 1986.
Much of the history of Minnesota protest is bound up with unions, including the IWW and various efforts by farmers to organize. The 1934 Teamsters’ strike, which included workers in warehouses, coal yards, groceries, and gas stations was “a broad, labor-based struggle for social change,” with the support of activist women, churches and cultural organizations and with opposition from the Citizens Alliance and Minneapolis police, turned Minneapolis into “a bloody battleground.”
People involved in progressive politics and protest today will find inspiration in some of the history recounted here—as well as the rueful recognition that today’s battles over ideology and tactics have familiar forerunners in centuries past.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.