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Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim
Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim

2020 Diversity & Inclusion: Collaborative Legal Community Coalition

Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim recalls spending a year putting together a scrapbook on Minnesota’s past for an elementary school history class. Missing from the state’s history was the 1920 lynching of three Black men in Duluth wrongfully charged with rape.

Over a year ago, Tunheim and a few of his colleagues created the Collaborative Legal Community Coalition to begin working on a commemoration of the lynching of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton. “We wanted people to understand this is not simply something that happened in Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia; this happened in Minnesota,” he said. “We need to make sure we understand what happened and why the rule of law is so important to keep this from ever happening again.”

Gov. Tim Walz, Blackwell Burke P.A. founder Jerry Blackwell, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, and several other organizations agreed to help with the project. Bryan Stevenson, who leads the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, agreed to speak and allow Duluth to eventually host a replica of the National Peace and Justice Memorial that commemorates lynching victims.

The community coalition scaled back its plans because of COVID, including a visit by Stevenson. Instead, a small group of prominent Minnesota attorneys and political leaders met in Duluth on June 15th at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Tunheim said. The district court continues to work on a commemorative booklet outlining the tragic events, and Tunheim wants to showcase the rule of law through reenactments of the trial of Max Mason, who avoided being lynched in 1920 but still served time on a false rape charge. Blackwell worked tirelessly to gain a pardon for Mason, he added.

The Equal Justice Initiative will add a historical marker to the Duluth memorial in October. The lynching story remains relevant in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody. “That incident reminds people that there are some things that haven’t changed over the course of history,” Tunheim said.

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