Kwame McDonald, long-time Minn. civil rights activist, dies

Kwame McDonald.
Long-time Minnesota civil rights activist Kwame McDonald died Wednesday.
Photo courtesy St. Paul Neighborhood Network

Long-time Minnesota civil rights activist Kwame McDonald, who organized community athletic opportunities for young people and was a pioneer in covering women's sports for local minority newspapers, died Wednesday at age 80.

He was a fixture at high school and college events and wrote about sports for two Minneapolis newspapers: Insight News, and then the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder. McDonald was also a community columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Charles Hallman, a fellow Spokesman-Recorder staff writer, said McDonald and his son, Mitch, spent hours working with young people in the schools.

McDonald did not call attention to his volunteer work, Hallman said.

"He'd teach class on anything they wanted to talk about. He didn't make a big deal about it; he didn't ask for reimbursement," Hallman said. "He just took his time to go in and listen to young people."

McDonald grew up in Madison, Wis., where he was a gifted high school athlete. He came to St. Paul in 1959 to work for the Urban League. In 1964, McDonald led a campaign to integrate the Minnesota Twins' spring training facilities.

McDonald gravitated toward work with young people at community centers. Bobby Hickman said when St. Paul gang activity increased in the 1970s, community leaders turned to McDonald for help.

Hickman, then director of the Inner City Youth League, a youth advocacy group, said McDonald was a peacemaker.

"Kwame knew that ... [if] you go out there and act militant you get a reputation and get very little done," Hickman said. "But he was insistent that you got his point and that however long it would take for him to make his point would have to do with how long it took for you to get it."

McDonald left Minnesota several times to work in other states, as a college administrator and in an anti-poverty agency.

He told friends in a recent video statement that he returned after each job to St. Paul because he felt welcomed by the community.

Each time, McDonald resumed youth work and covering sports. He hosted hundreds of episodes of his "Sports Rap" program on cable television's St. Paul Neighborhood Network.

McDonald was among the first Minnesota sports writers to give continuing coverage to female athletes.

Lisa Lissamore, who was a star high school basketball player for St. Paul Central, now is associate director of the Minnesota State High School League. She said McDonald created some of the first opportunities for young female athletes in the 1970s, including a community basketball program.

"Every female gym rat there was in St. Paul, or at least in the Summit University, that played in that league as representing Oxford playground," Lissamore said.

In a recent farewell message to friends, McDonald directed his final words to young people.

"Basic thing that I think young people need is self-love and self-confidence," McDonald said. "If you love yourself you will never let you down. Be who you are and it will all come together."

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