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Politics of the Past: Seizing the day — and Senate chamber

Editor’s note: This summer and fall, Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.

More than 1,000 left-wing protesters gathered at the Capitol on April 4, 1937, to support Gov. Elmer Benson as he tried to persuade the Legislature to pass a $17 million aid package for the unemployed. About 200 of the protesters stayed overnight in the Senate chamber after someone jimmied open the doors with a knife. (Submitted image: Minnesota Historical Society)

More than 1,000 left-wing protesters gathered at the Capitol on April 4, 1937, to support Gov. Elmer Benson as he tried to persuade the Legislature to pass a $17 million aid package for the unemployed. About 200 of the protesters stayed overnight in the Senate chamber after someone jimmied open the doors with a knife. (Submitted image: Minnesota Historical Society)

The deft work of a blade-wielding lock-picker led to what’s likely the only unauthorized demonstration in Minnesota history to be held on the floor of a legislative chamber.

The afternoon of April 4, 1937, more than 1,000 supporters of Gov. Elmer Benson had gathered at the Capitol to insist on a $17 million aid package for the unemployed. The protest was staged by the People’s Lobby, a short-lived branch of the Workers Alliance, and Benson gave a speech bemoaning the resistance of a “reactionary Senate” and corporate interests to hiking taxes on the wealthy.

By dinnertime most of the demonstrators had dissipated, and the protest would have been a forgettable affair in an era of ascendant left-wing populism were it not for the anonymous activist who used his knife to slip the latch of the Senate chamber’s doors.

A crowd of about 200 swept into the chamber, according to the Minneapolis Tribune. Overwhelmed, the sergeant-at-arms called the St. Paul police headquarters, which dispatched two detectives and four uniformed officers to the Capitol. But there was no attempt to eject the protesters, who expressed their intention to “stay until we get what we want.”

Through the night speakers took turns at the lectern and protesters sang songs like “March of the Toilers” and “Leaning on a Shovel” (sample lyrics: “We’ve made a lot of lovely things just leaning on a shovel … winding roads and highways straight, wonderful buildings that house the great”). Someone brought in hot dogs, hamburgers and bottles of milk, and the activists dined in comfort, reclining in the senators’ chairs, their feet propped on the senators’ desks. “The Senate chamber took on the scenery of a tired picnicking group awaiting arrival of the local train,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, noting the “unshaven” men and the women in gingham dresses “puffing cigarettes” and lounging “on the plush-carpeted steps leading up one side of the rostrum.”

The People’s Pilgrimage was a political lightning rod during the election of 1938. This attack ad highlights the role that Lucy Lawson, a 25-year-old candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives, played in organizing the People’s Lobby protest. The flyer was circulated by a group of six northeast Minneapolis women calling themselves the “Inter-Church Mothers Volunteer Committee.” (Submitted image: Minnesota Historical Society)

The People’s Pilgrimage was a political lightning rod during the election of 1938. This attack ad highlights the role that Lucy Lawson, a 25-year-old candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives, played in organizing the People’s Lobby protest. The flyer was circulated by a group of six northeast Minneapolis women calling themselves the “Inter-Church Mothers Volunteer Committee.” (Submitted image: Minnesota Historical Society)

The protest fizzled out peaceably by morning, but the Senate leadership was irate. At the behest of Sen. Harry Wing of Carlton, two organizers of the protest, Robert Cheska and Chester Watson, were jailed in lieu of $1,000 bail, charged with the gross misdemeanor of preventing the Senate from meeting.

The protesters’ invasion of the Senate chamber was divisive, with the Minneapolis Tribune opining that it was “an attempt to intimidate the Legislature,” but the prosecution of the protest’s leaders was seen by many as overkill.

The ACLU stepped in to defend Cheska and Watson, and Gov. Benson said the crackdown on the Workers Alliance leaders was nothing more than “artificial hysteria” and “political bunk” and declared that legislators “prefer the perfume of the corporation lawyer to the taste of the farm and factory.”

The protest’s aftermath made national news and was good fodder for the People’s Lobby movement’s collection of grievances. The liberal activist Dale Kramer wrote a 10-page pamphlet about “how reactionary senators and the Twin Cities press tried to frame the People’s Lobby.” He argued they characterized protesters as an unruly mob by inventing stories of “drinking and carousing” and melodramatically preventing janitors from cleaning up the Senate chamber. “There was only too grave a danger that these thousands of common, ordinary — but determined — people would undo the expensive work of the hired lobbyists,” Kramer wrote.

The “People’s Pilgrimage” appears to be unique in Minnesota history. Staff members at the state’s Legislative Reference Library say they know of no other time when a group of protesters occupied a legislative chamber.

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