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Minnesota's Progressive Legacy - Progress on Civil Rights


The Grand Consensus - Part III

Minnesota’s Progressive Legacy – Civil Rights

By Iric Nathanson


josie johnsonOn an April morning in 1961, a young civil rights activist named Josie Johnson was sitting in the ornate reception room at the state Capitol waiting to meet with Governor Elmer L. Andersen.  She had come there to urge Minnesota’s newly elected Republican governor to help rescue the fair housing bill, then bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Johnson was hopeful that Andersen would be sympathetic because he had staked out a clear position in support of fair housing in his January 2 inaugural address.  Andersen was a not a newcomer to the cause of civil rights.  Earlier in his career, as a state senator representing a St. Paul district, he had been a staunch advocate for the state law banning job discrimination, enacted in 1955.


In the spring of 1961, as the legislative battle over fair housing in Minnesota was reaching a climax, a national civil rights movement was gaining momentum.  Six years earlier, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had risen to national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.  That year, King, with several colleagues, established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which would become a driving force in the movement.  Later in 1961, a group of young activists known as freedom riders would begin their campaign to desegregate interstate buses and railroad stations in the South.  Their brutal treatment at the hands of angry mobs would generate a wave of national outrage.


Minnesota in the early 1960s may have seemed like an unlikely place for a major civil rights effort, with nonwhites comprising less than 2 percent of the state’s population.  But the cause had received major public attention with Hubert Humphrey’s election as mayor of Minneapolis in 1945.  As mayor, Humphrey won adoption of a local fair employment practices ordinance, one of the first of its kind in the nation.  During his second mayoral term, Humphrey would gain national prominence with his stirring address at the 1948 Democratic national convention, calling for the Democratic Party to “walk into the bright sunshine of civil rights.”  When Humphrey moved on to the U.S. Senate, the mantle of leadership in the DFL Party passed to Orville Freeman, who was elected governor in 1954.   During Freeman’s first year in office, he enacted the state’s fair employment law, patterned after Humphrey’s local ordinance.

In the 1950s, during Freeman’s years in office, Minnesota made progress on the employment front,  but fair housing proved to be a more difficult and contentious issue.  Starting in 1957, bills aimed at outlawing housing discrimination had been introduced in each legislative session, but proponents couldn’t line up enough votes to get the bills passed.

A Moral Cause


By early 1961, advocates led by a coalition of statewide religious groups began a concerted effort to move a fair housing bill through the legislature, with a House controlled by Liberals and a Senate dominated by Conservatives.  The legislative effort involved a three-way partnership of the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Catholic Inter-racial Council, and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.

On January 18, leaders of the three religious groups launched their joint effort at a St. Paul luncheon attended by more than 100 legislators. Dr. Wesley Ewert, the chairman of the Council of Churches’ legislative committee, told lawmakers at the January 18 event that a majority of the state’s Protestant denominations had signed a “consensus of conscience statement.”  That joint statement declared that “a family’s choice of a home site should not be obstructed by community forces motivated by racial basis.”  Ewert was joined by Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Crowley, representing the Catholic council, and Rabbi Kassel Abelson, head of the rabbinical association.

Over the next few months, a broad range of community groups throughout Minnesota signed on in support of fair housing.  Several local political organizations were part of that informal coalition. They included the Ramsey County Republican Committee, which noted in its resolution that “the Republican Party has for the past 100 years been dedicated to the principle of opportunity for all of our citizens regardless of race, or creed.”  The resolution concluded by urging passage of the 1961 House fair housing bill, H.F. 867, and its Senate companion, S.F. 750.

In its resolution, adopted at the February 18 city convention, the Minneapolis DFL reaffirmed its support of the 1960 Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor platform, which endorsed community and legislative action to end patterns of discrimination in housing.

On March 17 a huge throng —both supporters and opponents—crowded into a packed hearing room at the state Capitol for a hearing on H.F. 867, convened by the House Civil Administration Committee. The House bill was co-authored by Rochester Representative Donald Franke, a member of the House’s Republican-leaning Conservative Caucus and his Minneapolis colleague, Robert Latz, a DFLer aligned with the House Liberal Caucus.

In an attempt to rally public opinion against the bill in the weeks leading up to the House hearing, a group calling itself Minnesota Homeowners Inc. circulated a flyer that claimed that “If you as a home or property owner refuse to sell, rent, or lease to someone of another race, color, creed, origin, or religion, you will be fined $250 and/or sentenced to six months in jail.”

The Minneapolis Tribune, siding with supporters of the bill, maintained the group’s claims were misleading.  In a March 28 editorial, the paper noted that penalties could be imposed only after the validity of a discrimination claim had been upheld by a board of review and a citation for contempt filed in district.  “Fair housing proposals often stir vigorous and sometimes embittered controversy.  It is highly desirable, therefore, that the pros and cons of the debate be kept as close to the facts as possible.   The [homeowners’] statement might easily create fears on the part of many householders which were not fully justified by the facts.”

Earlier in the legislative session, the Tribune lent its support to H.R. 867, observing that “the best argument for open occupancy legislation is that it places the moral force and prestige of the state against housing discrimination.  It makes it easier for the individual to stand up and be counted for democratic housing practices.  It helps buttress the important process of education.” The paper went on to note “that the active interest of many religious leaders in the [fair housing] legislation will place a very substantial weight on the side of its enactment.”

Making the Case


While the state’s religious leaders were making the moral arguments in support of the legislative measure, local Urban League officials were presenting statistics to help strengthen the supporters’ cause.  In a joint statement to the House committee, Ernest Cooper and Robert Williams noted that 85 percent of St. Paul’s black population, numbering just over 9,000, was confined to six of the city’s 76 census tracts. Those six tracts included the city’s historically black community of Rondo, whose residents were being displaced by the construction of Interstate 94.  Minneapolis’ black population of just under 12,000 was largely confined to two residential pockets: one on the near North Side and the other in the city’s South Central district, according to Cooper and Williams.

The two officials explained that, with the exception of public housing, adequate rental housing was “almost nonexistent” for Negro renters.  Since 1946, more than 2,000 apartment units had been built in the Twin Cities, and none “to the best of our knowledge, is available or occupied by Negroes,” they noted.

Cooper and Williams went on to explain that the picture was little better with regard to new home construction and the sale of single-family homes.  “The Negro home purchaser is largely restricted in his housing choice to the defined Negro areas of the city—whatever his ability to purchase may be,” they said.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, as in much of the rest of the country, blacks were still contending with the vestiges of the racial covenants written into the deeds for many residential properties.  Those covenants often stated quite explicitly that the property could not be rented or sold to any member of the “Negro race.”  While the Supreme Court had declared in the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer that the covenants were no longer enforceable, they created informal patterns of discrimination in the Twin Cities that continued well into the 1960s.

On March 19, two days after the House Civil Administration hearing, supporters of H.R. 867 were heartened by the results of a Minnesota Poll, published in the Minneapolis Tribune, which showed that 64 percent of the respondents supported a proposed law “which would guarantee every person the legal right to buy or rent housing, regardless of his race, religion, or color.”

The fair housing bill received another boost when the House Civil Administration Committee approved the bill by a vote of 15 to 1 later the same week, pointing the way toward eventual passage of the measure by the full House.

A Problematic Outlook


donald m. fraserNow the major action on the bill moved on to the Senate, where the outlook for the measure was more problematic.  There, the chief author was Donald Fraser, who had been a consistent advocate for civil rights since his first election to the Senate in 1954.  Fraser faced substantial antipathy toward his bill from many of his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, which needed to act on the bill before it could come to the full Senate for an up-or-down vote.


The bill’s uncertain fate in the Judiciary Committee had brought Josie Johnson to the Capitol for the meeting with Governor Andersen.  Andersen later recalled his conversation with Johnson on that April morning, four months after he took office as Governor.  “She told me, ‘The Fair Housing Bill is in trouble. It is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  They are going to vote on it tomorrow morning, and we don’t have the votes to get it on the floor.  Can you help us?’ ”

“I said, “Josie, you sit right there while I write some notes.  I pulled out some stationery and wrote a personal note to every member of the Judiciary Committee.  The note said, ‘The Fair Housing Bill is important.  It means a lot to people.  It ought to have a hearing before the full Senate.  Regardless of how you feel about it personally, won’t you respect the tradition of the Senate and vote it out [of committee] tomorrow with or without recommendation? Please give it a chance to get to the floor,’ ” Andersen recalled.

The next day, April 6, Fraser’s bill was on the agenda when the Judiciary Committee convened.   To gain support for his legislation, Fraser accepted an amendment offered by one of his committee colleagues, which said that individuals named in civil rights complaints were entitled to trial by jury. Then, with one vote to spare, the committee voted to approve the Fraser bill 11 to 10.  Four Conservatives joined seven Liberals to vote for the bill, while two Liberals sided with eight Conservatives to oppose it.

With the governor’s help, Fraser had achieved an important victory in the Judiciary Committee, but he would face more hurdles when his bill reached the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota House had approved its version of the fair housing bill by a lopsided vote of 45 to 16.

Now Fraser faced a procedural challenge as Senate floor action loomed.  Because his bill was considered controversial, it needed a special rule for floor consideration, which required a two-thirds vote of the Senate.  Again, the Minneapolis senator managed to move his bill forward with one vote to spare.

Then he faced a series of crippling floor amendments that could have seriously weakened the bill.   One such amendment, proposed by Gordon Rosenmeier, would have delayed implementation of a state fair housing law in any of the state’s municipalities until voters in the municipality approved the law in a local referendum; the amendment was defeated by a vote of 31 to 33.

Rosenmeier, one of the legislature’s most powerful Conservatives, had voted to pass the fair housing bill out of the Judiciary Committee, but he would join with opponents of the bill when the measure finally cleared the Senate on April 13 on a vote of 36 to 30.  Fifteen Conservatives joined with twenty-one Liberals to vote for final passage, while three Liberals sided with 27 Conservatives and opposed the measure.

elmer l. andersen

Governor Elmer L. Andersen hailed passage of the fair housing bill when he signed it into law on April 14, calling the measure “not only a milestone for Minnesota’s human relations program, but another milestone for all to see that progress is being made.”

The bill as enacted made Minnesota the ninth state in the country to ban housing discrimination.  It converted the state’s existing Fair Employment Practices Commission into a State Commission against Discrimination, which would enforce a ban on discrimination in the sale, rental, or lease of housing, starting in 1963 when the law took effect.  Over the next five years, the State Commission and its successor, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, would investigate more than 500 cases of alleged housing discrimination.   During the review process, the state’s civil rights agency was able to achieve voluntary compliance in more than half the cases that it heard.  In about 170 cases, the commission investigated complaints but determined that there was no probable cause of discrimination.  In the remaining cases, the complaints were withdrawn or the commission couldn’t assemble enough evidence to take legal action against the subject of complaint.


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