SAINT PAUL — Today, Secretary of State Steve Simon urged Minnesotans to “stay restless” in their pursuit of voting rights for all Americans at a ceremony in St. Paul honoring the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Minnesotans who helped make the historic legislation a reality.
Secretary Simon honored five Minnesotans, including civil rights pioneer Dr. Josie Johnson and the four surviving members of the 1965 Minnesota congressional delegation – Vice President Walter Mondale, Governor Al Quie, U.S. Representative and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, and U.S. Representative Alec Olson. Minnesota was one of the proud states where all voting members voted in favor of the Voting Rights Act.
“On behalf of Americans in 1965, Americans today, and Americans yet to be born – who will learn about what you did – thank you,” Secretary of State Steve Simon said at the ceremony. “My hope is that when we all leave here today, we remain restless in our pursuit of voting rights for all Americans.”
Secretary Simon’s keynote remarks as prepared for delivery, including honoree introductions, can be found below.
Over 300 elected officials, community leaders, and members of the public watched at the Landmark Center as each honoree received a special award from the Minnesota Office of Secretary of State, in conjunction with the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). The inscription on the award thanks the honorees for their “courage and leadership in securing the right to vote for all Americans.” NASS allows each Secretary of State to confer up to five such awards each year.
After receiving the award, each honoree had the opportunity to speak and reflect on the historic events and debate that took place fifty years ago.
The ceremony was sponsored by the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Council to Celebrate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is dedicated to celebrating the historic anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act; educating Minnesotans about the importance of voting today; and activating voters moving forward.
The Council includes Secretary Simon, honorary co-chairs Vice President Mondale and Dr. Johnson, and nearly 50 Minnesota-based nonprofit, faith, business, and other community leaders. In July, August and September, the Council will be engaging communities across Minnesota in a series of events, starting at today’s ceremony and ending around National Voter Registration Day (September 22).
A Ceremony Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
Secretary Simon’s Keynote Remarks, As Prepared for Delivery:
We’re here to honor five special Minnesotans for their contribution to American democracy – and it’s important for us to appreciate and understand the context of what they did, and why it matters.
Almost all of us have a general sense of how bad things were for many voters in America before the Voting Rights Act.
Barriers of all kinds to registration and voting existed.
Barriers that were perfectly legal; barriers that were on the books and enforced by state courts.
Barriers not just in the deep South where Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana had their poll taxes and so-called “character tests” -- but in states like New York, which joined in imposing harsh literacy tests.
The intent and the result of these barriers was to shut out millions of Americans, with the full blessing of the law.
Naturally, the right to vote was a critical part of the civil rights movement.
When we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we often think of the 1963 March on Washington, and his “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
But six years earlier, in 1957, at a rally of nearly 30,000 at that same Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King said: “Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with people of good will.”
But change was slow. Very slow. In 1957, Congress passed a very modest civil rights act with trivial voting provisions. Out of that effort came a Commission on Civil Rights that had no power other than to issue reports.
But those reports contained some hard truths. One of them, issued in 1959, bluntly stated: “Legislation presently on the books is inadequate to assure that all our qualified citizens shall enjoy the right to vote. There exists here a striking gap between our principles and our everyday practices. This is a moral gap . . . . It runs counter to our traditional concepts of fair play. It is a partial repudiation of our faith in the democratic system.”
Still, change was slow. Very slow. But the heroes of the civil rights movement persisted; people like Roy Wilkins, Charles McDew, John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Thurgood Marshall. They pushed, they poked, and they persuaded.
And along the way, events -- some triumphant and some tragic -- created their own momentum.
First came the Freedom Summer of 1964, when people were killed for simply attempting to register African-American voters in the deep South.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed, but with it came no meaningful voting rights provisions. Change was indeed slow. Very slow.
Then came Selma. It took the Selma marches in 1965 to galvanize the forces fighting for free and fair access to voting. It took blood, violence, and murder.
Those Selma marches are what inspired -- some say “forced” -- President Johnson to speak to Congress and the nation – and to propose a Voting Rights Act.
We’re here today because of three forces that came together: A heroic grass-roots struggle for civil rights, events that forced Americans to take notice, and people in political leadership who got the message.
We’re also here because there’s a distinct Minnesota story to tell.
Like most landmark legislation, the Voting Rights Act was controversial in its day. And the debate in Congress was sometimes bitter. But Minnesotans did what they do best: they found common ground.
That wasn’t automatic. Minnesota had its own difficult history on civil rights. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Minnesotans voted three times on a statewide ballot question asking whether the state should allow African-Americans to vote. In 1865 and 1867, the voters of Minnesota said “no.” Only on the third try, in 1868, did voters finally say “yes.”
But nearly a century later, things had changed. In 1965, both major political parties came together around voting rights for all Americans.
The Minnesota DFL Party embraced civil rights in its platform, and through its elected representatives.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Republican Party Chairman traveled to Selma in March of 1965, and reported on his experiences when he returned; and he urged Republicans to support federal legislation to wipe away discriminatory voting laws.
That unity of purpose in Minnesota caught the attention of people in the national civil rights movement.
Civil rights icon John Lewis, then the 25 year old chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, spent three days traveling in Minnesota during the summer of 1965.
At the end of his trip, at a rally here in St. Paul, he said “[t]his is perhaps the only state in the country that is dramatizing in a massive way its concern for the people in the South.”
Fortunately, that spirit of shared concern reached Washington, D.C. In 1965, Minnesota had a congressional delegation that was very divided politically. The members of our delegation disagreed sharply on many prominent issues of the day – Vietnam, Medicare, immigration.
But when the roll was called on the Voting Rights Act, Minnesota's delegation spoke with one voice. All of our voting members, senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, voted to affirm the fundamental right to vote for ALL Americans.
We were one of the proud states that voted unanimously for the Voting Rights Act.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation into law on August 6, 1965, he rightly called it “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield.”
We didn’t just make a promise – we made it the law – to give millions of Americans a voice – by giving them a vote.
And it worked.
In Mississippi, African-American registration went from less than 10% in 1964 to 60% in 1968.
In the South as a whole, African-American registration reached 62%.
Literacy tests. Character tests. Poll taxes. Gone. And gone forever. Good riddance.
So, what remains? Barriers persist. They’re different now. But they’re here. And it’s up to all of us to help make our democracy worthy of our best traditions. Together.
We can do that. The people who we honor today showed us the way, and we are proud to call them fellow Minnesotans.
Our honorees are: Minnesota civil rights pioneer Dr. Josie Johnson AND the four living members of the 1965 Minnesota congressional delegation.
There are other members of that delegation who are no longer with us. But history should record their names once again today:
Senator Eugene McCarthy,
Congressman John Blatnik,
Congressman Joe Karth,
Congressman Odin Langen,
Congressman Clark MacGregor, and
Congressman Ancher Nelsen.
Some were Democrats. Some were Republicans. All did the right thing. They deserve our thanks. Let’s give it to them now.
The honorees who are with us today will all receive a special award from the Office of Secretary of State, in conjunction with the National Association of Secretaries of State. The inscription thanks them for their “courage and leadership in securing the right to vote for all Americans.”
With that, I’m excited to introduce the honorees.
Before the Voting Rights Act, before Selma, before Rosa Parks stood her ground and took her stand on a bus in Montgomery -- there was Josie Johnson.
It is therefore fitting that Dr. Johnson is our first honoree.
Dr. Johnson grew up in the 1930s and 40s in Texas, where, as a teenager, she joined her father in an effort to roll back poll taxes, and helped him push for the right to vote for all.
In the early 1960s, after moving to Minnesota, she led visits to Mississippi to shine a light on discrimination.
She became a leader of the Twin Cities civil rights community as it pushed successfully for voting rights legislation.
She went on to become Director of the Minneapolis Urban League, and the first African-American regent at the University of Minnesota.
And since that service, she has continued to press for human rights for all.
In particular, she has been an outspoken champion for access to the ballot box.
Please join me in welcoming and honoring Dr. Josie Johnson.
Our next honoree is someone who needs no introduction. Literally.
Walter Mondale is a giant in the history of our state and country. He has been a tireless advocate for civil rights over the course of his incredible career. In fact, he’s been just plain tireless. About everything.
I’ll never forget when I first met him. It was the mid-1980s. I was a teenager. My parents brought me to an event where he was speaking.
I waited with them in a receiving line so that I could meet him. I was nervous. When I got my chance, I told him that I was interested in public affairs.
I asked him for any advice.
His response was immediate: “Don’t worry about sleep. You can sleep when you’re old.”
That’s what I call tireless. Only, he seems not to have followed his own advice. He has lived a long life, but I don’t get the sense that he sleeps much at all.
He remains a force of nature; and a force for good in our nation and internationally.
In 1965, he was a brand new U.S. Senator from Minnesota. And he led our congressional delegation on a bipartisan basis to do the right thing. Mr. Vice President, thank you and congratulations.
Al Quie was, of course, a member of Congress in 1965. He served for over twenty years in the U.S. House, representing much of southern Minnesota.
In 1979, he then became our 35th governor.
He and I have collaborated on elections issues over the years. So, from time to time we meet for breakfast.
Because I love congressional history, I usually ask him about his days in Congress; and some of the great personalities and issues that marked his time at the Capitol.
Somehow, at a breakfast last fall, we got on the subject of where he lived when he served in Congress when he arrived in 1958.
He said he and his family lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. I asked him why he didn’t live in the Virginia suburbs, which were much closer to the Capitol.
Instantly, but very casually, he said, in between bites of bacon and egg: “There was no way we were going to send our kids to a segregated school.” Virginia’s schools were segregated. Maryland’s schools were not.
That says what you need to know about Al Quie’s personal commitment to civil rights. Governor Quie, I’m honored to give you this award for doing the right thing in 1965.
Many people know Don Fraser as the longest-serving mayor in the history of Minneapolis. But before that, he served sixteen years in the Congress representing Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs.
During that time, he was a thoughtful and effective advocate for civil rights in general – and voting rights (and election reform) in particular. . . . . But then, that doesn’t surprise those who know Don Fraser.
When President Johnson spoke to Congress in 1965, then-Congressman Fraser told a Minnesota reporter that he wanted to support a voting rights bill that was “as strong as the Constitution will permit.” And then he did.
He helped transform American democracy. Please join me in welcoming and honoring Mayor and Congressman Don Fraser.
Alec Olson served two terms in Congress, from 1963 to 1967. What an amazing four year period in American history.
He then came home to Minnesota, served in the Minnesota State Senate, ultimately rising to be President of the Senate. In 1976, he became Lieutenant Governor under Governor Rudy Perpich.
When I called him to tell him that he would receive this award, do you know what he was doing? He was outside, tending to his tomatoes. How very Minnesota. A person who helped change the course of American history, and he’s in the garden. He’s growing stuff. Mr. Olson, I hope those tomatoes are doing well.
Please help me welcome and honor Congressman, Senate President, and Lieutenant Governor Alec Olson.
It’s an honor to be in the presence of five great Minnesotans. To all five: History will judge you kindly. On behalf of Americans in 1965, Americans today, and Americans yet to be born – who will learn about what you did – thank you!
This ceremony is almost done, but our work is not yet done.
We, here, today, in this room, have different political positions and perspectives on some elections issues. That’s fine.
But surely we can agree that we shouldn’t sit still when it comes to the right to vote in Minnesota and America.
I want to end with something I found that, I think, summarizes the work before us.
It’s a letter written by Congressman John Blatnik in 1965 to a constituent from Duluth who wrote in favor of a Voting Rights Act.
In confirming his own support for the legislation, Congressman Blatnik wrote: “We in Congress are charged with the responsibility of insuring our citizens the privilege of voting. Please know that I will be restless until this responsibility is fully discharged.”
Restless, he said. What a perfect word. What a great call to action. My hope is that when we all leave here today, we remain restless in our pursuit of voting rights for all Americans.
Thank you so much for joining me in honoring these amazing Minnesotans today. Above all: Stay restless.
Contact: Ryan Furlong, 651-297-8919, firstname.lastname@example.org
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