FREE SPEECH ZONE | St. Cloud, Birmingham and Jena: Raising antes and losing pots


In advertising campaigns, athletics, guerrilla warfare and certain racial conflicts, creativity and innovative thinking can prove highly effective with very few participants. Early anti-racist campaign strategies and tactics were deferential to racists. Later campaigns were defiant and dignified, but similarly dependent on large numbers of brave participants as in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma (Alabama). The Watts (Los Angeles), Newark and Detroit rebellions were more aggressive and threatening. South Central (Los Angeles) was aggressive and convincing. Most anti-racist rebellions are helped by extensive media coverage.  

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Birmingham (1963) represented the combination of historically entrenched racism, city government’s determination to maintain segregation and double standards of law enforcement by Police Chief Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) designed “Project C” (C for confrontation). On 2 May 1963, Black school children from ages six to eighteen agreed to create a media event. It was assumed racist police would overreact. Within three hours, 959 brave children had filled area jails. The following day, a thousand more children gathered again in Kelly Ingram Park. ‘Bull’ Connor ordered dog attacks while firefighters used high pressure water hoses to injure and intimidate demonstrators. While the world watched, Connor “raised the ante but lost the pot.” As a result, Birmingham’s business community grudgingly relented. They agreed to integrate lunch counters and hire more Blacks despite strong objections from city officials. 

Birmingham offers lessons for St. Cloud despite lower intensity and fewer people.

On 20 September 2007, Louisiana’s Jena Six demonstrated three important axioms/principles: (a) a couple of creative thinkers can replace initial reliance on large group consensus; (b) as in advertising, effective exposure of racism can generate public support; and (c) Jena’s astute publicity attracted crowds of 15,000 to support the Six. Louisiana’s media coverage sparked national interest. Jena’s mayor, city leaders, local prosecutors and school officials “raised the ante and lost the pot.”

“Out of sight, out of mind” approaches to racism can often precipitate more exposure than denial and silence can hide. St. Cloud city hall, politicians and St. Cloud State (SCS), learned about ante versus pot relationships in 1968 and 1991. Like medical mistakes causing deaths (sanitized as “adverse events”), St. Cloud’s adverse racial events were de-sanitized by two Black professors blowing the whistle on 131 years of SCS administrative apathy, cowardice, dereliction of duty.

Denying, excusing and ignoring historic racial hostilities by city hall and SCS presidents produced four primary approaches to community racism: (1) acceptance and rationalization by conscientious objectors in the war against racism (explained as “working through the system”); (2) diplomacy with independent organizing and networking (purposely promoting Black intercultural and interethnic unity); (3) deferentially voicing disapprovals while powerless to impose penalties; and (4) acts of blatant defiance, insult and ridicule using mass media as ammunition.  

The most aggressive attacks on St. Cloud racism began with the appointments of four minority administrators with authority at St. Cloud State University (SCSU): (a) Nellie Stone Johnson, civil rights activist, labor leader and Minnesota State Universities trustee board member (1988); (b) Dr. Bernard Oliver, College of Education dean (1989); (c) Dr. Josephine Davis, academic vice president (1990); and (d) Dr. Roy Saigo, SCSU’s 21st president (2000). City leaders and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system administrators assumed Saigo would also ignore obvious racism as skillfully as previous and succeeding SCSU presidents.

Similar to African American confidences raised by presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as potentially helpful to civil rights efforts 30 years earlier, SCSU’s Black students and faculty were encouraged by the appointments of Johnson, Oliver, Davis and Saigo. Two Black faculty members supporting disgusted students raised the ante on local racism by encouraging a Black student walkout attracting attention from allies, city hall, news media and racists (1991).

St. Cloud is now vulnerable to “bad cop, good cop” manipulation by determined but more diplomatic agents. After costly trashing by Black “hardcore malcontents,” city hall’s frantic counteroffensive relies on procuring “most livable” and “most secure” community “tricks” from street corner organizations. Humiliation often forces cooperation with demanding but less threatening anti-racist leaders. 

Increasingly aggressive attacks on St. Cloud racism were prompted by confidence in prospective change agents. By 2000, as racist retaliations increased, two Black professors applied SCLC’s “Project C tactics.” President Saigo responded strategically by (in military terms) calling for airstrikes dangerously close to his position coordinates. Unlike all previous and succeeding SCSU presidents, Saigo rejected “plausible deniability.” By allowing independent investigative studies of campus and community racism, Saigo defied efforts to hide or ignore local racism condoned or facilitated since 1869. Those study findings identified and verified racism denied and ignored today. Despite the risk of being a friendly fire casualty SCSU president Saigo raised the ante and won both ethical and moral pots.