Fighting for racial justice in Duluth

April Emig 

Working on the murals at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in downtown Duluth on Monday, June 8.

“An event happened, upon which it’s difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”

The Edmund Burke quotes lines the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in downtown Duluth, one of those quotes that’s unsettling in its continued relevance.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the lynching of three black men in Duluth. Commemorative events were scheduled beginning in January, leading to the Day of Remembrance on June 15. Many events had to be adjusted or canceled due to COVID-19.

But the killing of George Floyd lent an urgency to the remaining events. A community painting was held on June 8. The mural was completed on three separate plywood panels featuring Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the black fist symbolizing the fight against racism. They were designed by Duluth artist Moira Villiard.

The event was held as an opportunity for community healing.

“A memorial is just a symbol to reflect, to remember,” said Daniel Oyinloye, one of the coordinators of the event, along with his organization DanSan Creatives.
Black, indigenous and people of color were encouraged to use the murals to process their feelings, especially surrounding police brutality.

“Bottom line, we’re not dying no more,” said Duluth NAACP president Stephan Witherspoon, standing by the statues of three young black men who were killed in that very space 100 years before.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were wrongly accused of raping a white women and were held as suspects in the Duluth City Jail. On June 15, 1920, they were abducted from the downtown jail. A mob of five to 10 thousand people beat and tortured them prior to being hung from a lamppost. Aside from a photograph of the scene that made its rounds on postcards, the event was largely forgotten.  

And were it not for the work of activists, writers, educators and students, the names of Elias, Elmer and Issac would have largely been forgotten as well.
In 2000, decades before “say their names” was a rallying cry, The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Inc. was formed. They offer tours and resources for the community to learn more about what happened at the intersection of East 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East. They also provide scholarships to students in need (donations can be taken on their website).

The CJMM group is among many organizations in Duluth that have been fighting for racial justice. One of the oldest is the Duluth branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was formed shortly after the 1920 lynching of Elias, Elmer and Isaac with help from the branches in the Twin Cities.

In 1909, the first NAACP was formed, partly as a response to continued lynchings. They’ve since become one of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organizations.
The mission of the Duluth NAACP is to “ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.” Now the event that catalyzed the branch’s formation echoes in today’s climate of police brutality.

“These young, unarmed, and innocent Black men were murdered by a mob of White people as Duluth police officers watched,” a statement from June 4 reads. “So, addressing police brutality and complicity in the death of Black people has been part of the Duluth NAACP’s mission from its inception.”

They’ve been doing this work for a century, telling the community that black lives matter. While it’s promising that more white people are listening now, it can also cause frustration. All of the information has been available for years – racism isn’t new. And it will take more than trending social media campaigns to make lasting change.

“Honoring George Floyd requires dismantling systems of White supremacy. We are not speaking of the Ku Klux Klan here. Instead, it is about systems that center Whiteness and don’t openly confront anti-Blackness,” continued the June 4 statement.

These are systems that are of particular concern to young people and the Duluth NAACP has been working to create space for them. They held the first Anti-Racist Youth Summit in February for Duluth-area middle and high school students. The sessions were created to empower black, indigenous and mixed race students, along with their allies. The goal is to create the Duluth NAACP youth council.

Because of COVID-19, a lot of the work had to move online. “Quaranteen” events have been held as a way for these students to continue growing their connections.

After the death of George Floyd, Free Space events were added multiple times a week. Those will become less frequent as time goes on, but still serve as a safe space for students to share their fears and frustrations to their peers and counselors.

Of course, not every student can access these technologies, often due to poverty.
“Racism has created barriers for people to engage in these ways,” said Terresa Moses, 2nd Vice President of the Duluth NAACP branch and chair of the Young Adult Committee.

But that doesn’t mean the momentum will die down.

“There’s been a huge resurgence in young people who want to organize,” she said. “It’s imperative that they have the tools necessary to make policy change, to talk about how to change the institutional systems.”

One of those institutions is the police system. In 1920, law enforcement let down the three young black men who were lynched by the mob. It’s a legacy many see echoed today, one of unaccountability and unchecked power.

“People say it’s just a few bad apples,” said Oyinloye. “But if there were just a few bad apples, George Floyd would be alive. The whole system is a bad apple.”

The murals created on Monday are full of images and words of pain and hope. They are now displayed at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial.