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'Degrees of Freedom:' The MN African American experience post-Civil War

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'Degrees of Freedom'
'Degrees of Freedom' by Bill Green
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Bill Green, Augsburg history professor and former superintendent of the Minneapolis school district, is out with a book about civil rights in Minnesota in the 50 years after the Civil War. 

This is a period when Minnesota has often gotten credit for being more progressive on race and civil rights than other states, especially those in the South. 

But Green's exploration of that period found important nuance that has shaped Minnesota's relationship with race ever since. He joined MPR News' Tom Weber to look back at Minnesota civil rights history and how it relates to issues we're seeing today.

Interview highlights

Minnesota was the first state by a vote of the people to extend voting to African Americans through a referendum. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

  "It is true that Minnesota passed not one, not two, but three civil rights bills within a period of about 10 to 12 years and that's very, very impressive," he said. "On the other hand, the laws that were passed were without teeth."

The state's leadership didn't actively enforce laws banning discrimination, Green said. 

"For many of his ilk, 'freedom' only seemed to mean being unshackled from chains of servitude, not having the means to pursue the full enjoyment of opportunity," Green writes. "'Equality' meant having access to the ballot, but not being served at a restaurant downtown. 'Dignity' meant that white men used the appellation of 'mister' to African American men with middle-class bearing, while tolerating a society that demeaned the entire black race. It was the nature of this kind of 'sincerity'--multifaceted and often paradoxical, myopic and sometimes self-congratulatory--that characterized the tepid relations between blacks and whites in postwar Minnesota."

The fight for civil rights of African Americans was often dwarfed by other issues facing Minnesota.

After the Civil War, Minnesota experienced major increases in immigrations from other parts of the United States and parts of Europe. This created more tension focused on class and farming. African Americans were still a small percentage of the state's population.

"Minnesota is far from a peaceful place," he said. "It is competing and warring classes and in the midst of all this, the African American population seems dwarfed by all those other interests."

In his book he writes: "As long as there was peace—and peace was possible since the black population was very small and seldom had any of them broken the fragile calm—the problem of visible and volatile racial tension would not arise. In its absence, whites could allow themselves to think that there was no racial problem."

African Americans had to deal with the dynamics of "the politics of gratitude," Green said.

"There were many things that the Republican Party in general and the leadership of Minnesota did for which they deserved gratitude," he said. "On the other hand, it had a way of stymieing candor. Few of the Republican governmental leaders, the policymakers, had any kind of relationship with African Americans, so when an African American said something that was critical, they would be faced with some sort of retribution."

Challenges faced by African Americans then are still relevant today

"The type of thing that we see at Ferguson I think is pretty ongoing," he said. "The triggering moment that made it newsworthy was something that may see fairly extreme, but the tensions that exist in cities across the country and racial issues and tensions between the African American population and the police department are fairly constant... It's pretty much a part of the African American experience... Looking at something 100 years ago makes it a little bit safer for us to begin to talk about some of this stuff today."