Buddy King: With an eye to St. Cloud’s past, looking to change the future

A man standing in a park.
Buddy King stops along Beaver Island Trail in St. Cloud, Minn. King, a nonprofit leader and youth pastor, is seeking a seat on the St. Cloud City Council. He recently organized a youth march in St. Cloud following the killing of George Floyd.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Protests large and small have emerged across Minnesota since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

All this week, MPR News is talking to some of the people behind rallies, marches and demonstrations happening beyond the Twin Cities metro area — about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future. See and hear all of the conversations here.

Buddy King’s favorite spot in St. Cloud is a swing overlooking the Mississippi River in Butler Park.

It’s a relaxing place where he can meditate and reflect on the city’s past — and its future.

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“Sometimes you need that, especially as we experience what the world is experiencing,” King said.

Three years ago, St. Cloud dedicated Butler Park to commemorate the city's first African American resident. Mary Butler arrived in St. Cloud, enslaved and pregnant, in 1857, when a Southern slaveholder came up the Mississippi on a steamboat.

The park marks a somber chapter in the city's history. But King has chosen to make it a spot for reflection and hope for something better for the city’s Black community.

"For me, it was like: Finally, we have a spot to call our own,” King said. “We don't have that in St. Cloud. We don't have a meeting gathering place that everybody can say, ‘That's my meeting place. That's my gathering place. I'm gonna own that place.’ And to me, that's what this was.”

But three years later, King said, many residents of St. Cloud aren’t aware the park exists. Because of its significance, he chose the park as the end point for a youth march he helped organize last month.

A man standing in a park.
Buddy King stands by the Mississippi River in Butler Park. King recently organized a youth march in St. Cloud following the killing of George Floyd.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

King 42, moved to St. Cloud from Kansas City, Mo., almost 20 years ago to attend St. Cloud State University.

After working for 18 years at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota, King now helps run a local nonprofit, Higher Works Collaborative, which connects people in need with available resources. He’s also a youth pastor at Jubilee Worship Center in St. Cloud.

King said the idea to organize a local youth march was born during conversations with members of his church youth group after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"What was coming out blew my mind,” he said. “One young lady in particular … She said, ‘I don't understand. The civil (rights) movement was 50, 60 years ago. Why are we still talking about the same thing 50, 60 years later?’ That's when it hit me. She got it. She understood, right? I'm like, why are we still talking about the same thing?”

So on June 13, about 150 people gathered at Lake George Park, in the heart of St. Cloud. They marched about a mile north to Butler Park.

“We have gotten to a place in America where we need to hit the reset button,” King said. “So for me, this was symbolic to hitting the reset button ... We messed up somewhere. We missed it. Let's reset. Let's start over. Let me introduce everybody to Butler Park. Let me introduce everybody to our beginning.

“You say Black Lives Matter. You say that you care. You want to be an ally. Well, it starts here.”

The marchers carried signs and chanted, "No justice, no peace." The event was peaceful.

But just two days later, violent protests broke out after a St. Cloud police officer was shot in the hand while arresting an 18-year-old man, and rumors about the incident spread on social media.

Some protesters threw rocks at police and damaged businesses, and dozens were arrested during consecutive nights of turmoil.

On the third night, King and other community leaders helped quell the unrest by creating a space for young people to share their stories of racism and injustice.

“We had those kids talking. It was powerful,” he said. “They were sharing, they were crying, they were laughing, they were holding hands. It was beautiful.”

A handful of individuals raised their fists in the air
A handful of people raise their fists in the air as they stand together in the Be The Community event at the intersection of Ninth Avenue South and University Drive on June 17 in St. Cloud.
Brian Mozey | St. Cloud Times

King said everything that has happened since Floyd's death has actually made him hopeful for the future.

"Everybody's eyes were opened around the world,” he said. “They were rioting and protesting in France and Switzerland and Australia ... So our eyes are open. Now, what’re you gonna do with that energy?"

King is using his energy to run for a seat on the St. Cloud City Council. He’s one of several people of color who are seeking elected office in St. Cloud this year.

A man standing on a walkway in a park.
Buddy King stops along Beaver Island Trail in St. Cloud. King is seeking a seat on the City Council.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

The city has made significant strides in overcoming the racial injustice of its past, but still has work to do, King said.

He points to community policing agreement between several community organizations and the St. Cloud Police Department, which he said helped ease tensions during the recent protests.

But King also recounts a story a white woman told him recently about paying for some items at a local store. Another woman, who was Black, paid for similar items at the next register, she said. Employees stopped the Black woman at the door and asked to check her purchases, but told the white woman she could go right through.

“The racism here is not as bold as it used to be. It’s more an undercurrent at this point,” King said. “You can see it really clearly in systems more than you can see it in people. That’s what we’ve got to change.”