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Katie McWatt , St. Paul civil rights pioneer, dies at 79

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St. Paul civil rights pioneer Katie McWatt, whose protests took her to the bottom of a construction ditch as well as the lawn of General Mills, died Monday after a 3 1/2-year battle with lung cancer. She was 79.

Friends remember McWatt was a problem-solver who helped break the glass ceiling for African-Americans in St. Paul. 

"And she did that by running for office," said longtime friend Vicky Davis, who worked on one of McWatt's campaigns.

In 1964, frustrated by the amount of housing discrimination faced by African-Americans, McWatt became the first black candidate to run for the St. Paul City Council. 

Although she narrowly lost the election, many say she paved the way for other black candidates to enter the political arena and hold city office. She was later defeated in her bid for a seat in the state Legislature.

Davis remembers McWatt standing up for the rights of not only African-Americans, but women, too. McWatt belonged to the League of Women Voters and helped with get-out-the-vote drives.

Davis recalls one heated battle in the Summit-University neighborhood, in which McWatt and other activists literally put a stop to construction of a new housing project.

"I remember her putting on a hardhat and going into a ditch, to prevent them from digging a ditch until they made some concessions on the people they were going to employ in the building," Davis said. "She was the kind of person who was always lifting her fists and saying, 'That's not the way it should happen.'"

Davis says McWatt most recently was fighting for concessions for poor and minority residents along the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line. McWatt was a former board member of the St. Paul NAACP, which is one of the groups suing over the project over concerns about gentrification.

Mayor Chris Coleman released a statement Monday on McWatt's passing. "Whether she was speaking out against racial injustice or on behalf of quality education or in support of the power of hope, Katie's voice never wavered," he said, adding that McWatt successfully fought for the addition of three extra stations along the Central Corridor line.

McWatt also fought for the hiring of African-American men in the construction trades during urban renewal.

When she worked for the Urban League in the 1970s, McWatt was so troubled by the hiring practices of General Mills that she and other activists boycotted the company and left truckloads of General Mills products on the company's lawn, Davis recalled. The firm later changed its hiring policies and diversified its work force.

In her most recent job at Central High School, where she worked for about 17 years until her retirement, she worked with minority students and encouraged them to stay in school and pursue ambitious careers.

McWatt's son, Tim McWatt, says his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer more than three years ago. But he said she proudly lived to see the election of America's first black president and even had her picture taken with Barack Obama. 

"She thought it was a great achievement of how society had changed and was more accepting of black Americans," Tim McWatt said Monday.

Katie McWatt's husband, Arthur, was also involved in civil rights issues in St. Paul. He wrote about the struggle in a book called "Crusaders for Justice."