The “sizzling sixties” stands out as one of the most dramatic seachanging decades in the annals of American political and social history. Not since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction has the nation seen such a massive social transformation. Nearly everything for good or evil surfaced to disrupt the sleeping-beauty image that most Americans naively clung to.
At that propitious moment, the Congress of the United States united with a morally outraged social movement and the expedient leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson to enact three civil rights bills in rapid succession: 1) the right on the part of disenfranchised Black Americans to shed the status of caste and enjoy public accommodations (1964); 2) the right to vote for the second time (first voting rights bill passed in 1870) (1965); and 3) the right to equal access in housing (1968). For the first time since the Reconstruction period, the executive branch of government exercised its authority to protect the rights of all people as stipulated by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The triumph of the human spirit over the entrenched nightmare Jim Crow system of segregation—the Southern signature for (by law) American racism—was finally achieved.
Millions of Americans, mainstream and marginalized, viewed a new America in the making on their television screens. The images of marching Blacks was a constant image for nearly a decade. The Grand March on Washington on August 28, 1963, placed an exclamation point on the crowning achievement of the nonviolent direct action campaign throughout the South that was led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was a march for democratic rights indisputably led by Black people that remains the clearest example of participatory democracy on a mass scale and the gateway to the coming of a more inclusive America.
In 1965 “The Great Society” was also launched. Though dramatic and short lived, eclipsed by the Vietnam War and the subsequent redirection of the nation’s resources, the clear possibilities of such a program was evident.
There can be no better example of the spirit of those times than the North Central Voters League (NCVL), a local effort that emerged in Saint Paul. Upon reflection, the NCVL seems a virtual paragon of grassroots activism, akin to many such efforts that were going on across America. In the fall of 1963, a tiny collection of African American citizens met at the old Elks Lodge, located on Kent and Carroll streets, on the ground where the present-day Martin Luther King Community Recreation Center stands. They joined the campaign that Martin Luther King hailed as “this marvelous new militancy emerging among the Negro people.”
Within this budding volunteer leadership organization were some remarkable souls. They were primarily from working-class backgrounds. Collectively they were endowed with a high level of common sense, intelligence, and the kind of wisdom that comes only from lived experience. While they came from a variety of occupations in the workaday world, a disproportionate number had backgrounds in the railroad industry. A few of these men and women had college backgrounds also. But the main characterization of their identity was bound to the notion of “everyday people.” More importantly, these people were largely middle-aged and beyond.
Ray Hill, Jessie Miller, Robert Anderson, “Blotch” Perkins, Jester “Rock Bottom” Howell, and Mr. Thurman were some of the men who provided the leadership at the earliest stage of evolution. Women such as Charlie Hollins, Joann Favors, and Allie Mae Hampton came aboard a bit later. The success of grassroots volunteerism proves that in a society that styles itself a democracy, the involvement of people at Ralph Ellison’s “lower frequencies” makes democracy work best. As a volunteer organization, NCVL immediately involved itself in voter registration campaigns, confronting the city fathers over their responsibilities to central city dwellers: Having a stoplight placed at the dangerous intersection of Dale and Rondo (Concordia), fighting for a library to be placed near Lexington on University, initiating a dialogue with then Mayor Tom Burns, and supporting activist Eloise Adams’ struggle to influence the city to build Oxford Swimming Pool in the Summit-University neighborhood are but a few examples of political struggles that NCVL either initiated or supported.
The campaign of Katie McWatt for a seat on the Saint Paul City Council in 1964 highlights NCVL’s commitment to changing the power alignment in Saint Paul politics. NCVL was the most visible and aggressive supporter of the McWatt campaign on every level. At the time, Katie McWatt was a housewife and mother of four children. Mrs. McWatt’s campaign represents the beginning of the continuum of African American candidates running for city council. She nearly won, coming within a hair of winning an at-large seat!
When President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs got underway, a strategy for fighting a “war” against poverty was devised. The jewel among a plethora of other social programs was the Community Action Program or CAP, as it came to be known. A survey of segments of deep pockets of poverty was carried out by the federal government and targeted for government aid throughout the nation. The most progressive aspect of this attempt to eliminate poverty was its designation of volunteers—self-motivated, self-help, nontraditional community-based organizations—as recipients of funds to improve their efforts and/or initiate other programs to improve the general welfare of the community. NCVL was one of the first such community organizations in the nation to receive a large federal grant as a delegate organization in a designated target area.
NCVL’s involvement in CAP would change its role somewhat. CAP did the work of the volunteers with paid staff while still under the auspices of the board of the volunteer organization (NCVL). It was agreed to appoint Ray Hill and Jessie Miller, two of the major founders of NCVL, to head the new CAP agency.
Perhaps the most important, and not necessarily intended, NCVL contribution to neighborhood, community, and city rests in the realms of two other activities. First, the organic nature of the organization appealed to activists across “race” lines. Many individuals from the white community found the free social spaces in which to operate at NCVL. Before and after federal funds, there were white individual NCVL loyalists such as Gale Dietz, a brilliant artist-activist from White Bear Lake, and Dorothy and Bob Davies.
Second, NCVL provided a Wednesday evening forum that was unprecedented in the political, social, and racial history of Minnesota. The forum drew from every quarter, across the spectrum of “race,” class, and political persuasion. It lasted in some form for roughly five years (1965–1970). Attendees included Nick Coleman, a powerful figure in the state legislature and a regular attendee. The forum turned out to be a very healthy environment for political debate. The talk was at times sharp, loud, and vociferous, but never degenerated into the low and vulgar that often is found in the upper echelons of American politics. The intellectuals were there from the University of Minnesota and other colleges. Robert Staples, a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, praised the value of the forum for the insight that participants gave him. Students from various surrounding colleges, such as Jeannie Gustafson and others, had a steady presence at the forum. Rosalie Butler, wife of the very wealthy Walter Butler—a controversial, enigmatic contrarian in Saint Paul politics—made her presence felt at the forum. Sandy Keith, later elected to the Minnesota State Supreme Court and a Kennedy-like candidate for governor, paid a visit to the forum to launch his campaign in Saint Paul. The late Andrew Haines, a young African American lawyer, was a forum participant and an informal advisor to NCVL. Haines would later become the lone Black professor on the faculty of the Mitchell School of Law.It would be impossible to measure the meaning and value of the forum to the immediate and larger community. Suffice to say, it was a vehicle or a magnet for drawing great cross sections of unlike people into the same space. In one sense, NCVL again was in the vanguard. It anticipated what we call diversity today. The forum was a result of a natural need, inherent in certain individuals, for exchange with “the other”—a search for understanding, for unity, and for simple human connection. Of course, there were awkward moments of adjustment, given who we are as a nation, created by script on paper.
All things considered, the forum was a monstrous success. It was a fine example of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty, from time to time must be replenished.” Aside from the forum assuming the role of an informal intermediary structure for political education, there was direction and intention thrust on education by NCVL. Besides building a community library within its space, it sponsored freeof- charge classes in African American history and culture, again presaging the arrival of this subject in official school curriculum. Classes were popular, a result of a wide-reaching newspaper article. The history and culture classes became an unintended outreach program, drawing a number of whites from nearby suburbs.
It would be safe in saying that NCVL was the spawning ground for other new programs in the poverty programs. The Model Cities, Head Start, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition programs are intrinsically related to the spirit, if not the letter, of NCVL. Sue Williams, the first director of Head Start, came directly from the ranks of NCVL.
The names of these champions of yesteryear, who made significant contributions to community life a generation ago, now fade from our memories. There are no memorials or statues recognizing the work and struggle of such responsible citizens, perhaps most of them gone to the greater beyond. “Nobody knows their names, but the fruits of their labors are still with us. They were a part of the now nameless, faceless, tramp, tramp, tramp of marching feet,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described the workers for a better world. These were the people Dr. King was hailing and saluting when he wrote:
Everybody can be great because everyone can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.
You don’t have to know about Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.