On the shores of Lake Superior, a 100th commemoration of the 1920 lynching deaths in Duluth of three black men will come next year in monthly waves.
Organizers hope the biggest crest will occur if and when they get 10,000 people together on the 100th anniversary of the deaths of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie on June 15, 2020.
A mob of up to several thousand Duluth residents engaged in the original grisly outcome. The large committee of people behind the 100th commemoration events came up with a figure they think matches it.
“We said: ‘One hundred years from 1920, we have to get at least 10,000 people in the streets to say this is wrong.’ And that is the pinnacle and what we are building toward over the next eight months,” event organizer Jordon Moses said.
“We have to get at least 10,000 people in the streets to say this is wrong.”
Monthly commemoration events will start in January and continue until the final goal of building a tide of humanity June 15 to encompass the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth. That’s where one of the world’s leading human rights authorities and “60 Minutes”-featured Bryan Stevenson will headline a program and deliver an address from the city’s Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial.
According to sources, he's not coming for cheap, but he's coming to inspire.
“One of our consistent themes was that we needed to have a rally at the memorial, and to have people in the intersection, coming together to honor these men,” Moses said.
Events are already a second year in the making. The target fundraising goal from this day forward is $130,000-140,000, but Moses and others have been grinding away for more than a year already, fueled by grants and sponsors, on plans for film screenings, panel events, concerts, theater readings, art shows, a community dinner, acknowledgement outside City Hall and a grave site gathering to remember the men and to consider their lasting impact.
Among those impacts have been reverberation and outside attention.
“What happens in Duluth impacts the whole state,” Moses said. “We’re inviting folks from throughout the state to join us.”
Heidi Bakk-Hansen is a CJM board member. She wrote the story in the alternative magazine Ripsaw which helped reclaim the lynchings for a new generation, titling it “Duluth’s Lingering Shame.”
It’s a landmark piece of Duluth-based journalism and registers with lines such as, “(T)he effort to forget has been strong.” It’s a fine way of saying not every generation does what she and Michael Fedo, author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” both accomplished in the year 2000.
Bakk-Hansen helped see the memorial to fruition and has watched it grow to represent a coming to grips between the people of Duluth with the past. The 100th anniversary allows for a large-scale reckoning.
"That's the goal — let’s counteract the 10,000 who were there at the lynching itself," she said. "It's going to be a big crowd of people. We've got school groups and other groups coming in."
Bakk-Hansen's dedication to human rights has continued in recent years. In 2018, she rode the Alabama 35 bus to Montgomery, Ala.
The Alabama 35 bus riders were Duluth's de facto ambassadors to the opening of a national lynching memorial. Among them were an oncoming generation, bound to learn from the lessons of the past.
“We have a responsibility to be a vanguard on the next step for our community,” Bakk-Hansen said.
The Duluth lynching memorial unveiled in 2003 was the first of its size and scope to honor people who died under such cruel spectacle — “An event has happened …” the monument begins.
That was until the Stevenson-founded Equal Justice Initiative commissioned the 2018 unveiling of his National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery — a haunting and sprawling confrontation with the country's legacy of lynchings. The memorial resides on a knoll just up from historically marked riverboat landings and slave markets.
Another modern CJM vanguard, Warren Read, is coming back to Duluth, too. The author of “The Lyncher in Me,” a memoir about a family member's role in the lynchings, Read is returning to Duluth for CJM 100. He plans to bring his mother, Nellie Cant, for the first time. She hadn’t been ready for the crowds during the 2003 unveiling of the memorial. But now, at 76, “she is processing everything well.”
“Her grandfather has been the subject of a lot of thoughts, and she’s had a lot of years to go through it, to talk about it and get used to the story,” Read said.
They live near one another in Kingston, Wash., north across Puget Sound from Seattle. His life, like the water, is always changing. He’s an assistant principal, having been a teacher, and his own children are grown from when he first wrote his book.
“What I’ve realized is that the feelings have evolved and it’s more complex than guilt,” Read said. “There’s no real easy answer. It’s about being present, and taking on responsibility as a citizen to do what you can to fight for equity.”
Read is excited to also reunite with Virginia Huston, another confirmed CJM 100 guest. She's a cousin to Elmer Jackson. It was a connection Read's book research revealed to them both.
"We've become friends," Read said. "It's incredible."
For Moses, 28, the choice to organize CJM 100 meant he had to leave behind a full-time job organizing student activities at one of the local college campuses. The founder of Blackbird Revolt studio, producing socially aware marketing, Moses was hired by the CJM board to organize the 100th commemoration events.
He talks about how, like the roiling water in the harbor, the legacy of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie roils, too. All these nearly hundred years later, the stakes are higher and the bar for tolerance needs to rise with it, he said.
"A certain part of this community has acknowledged what has happened," Moses said. "But we as a community collectively have to do a better job — not just on the facts of the story but on the implications and what it means to us as individuals."
Currently Moses is in the arduous process of building partnerships. He's connected with Visit Duluth, the library, the DECC and is driving for other, what he called, "intentional partnerships." Included in that was Grandma's Marathon, which follows CJM 100 by five days. There's opportunity there, he sensed.
To raise money, Moses discussed a $20 from 20 campaign on the CJM 100 website asking people to raise $400 from their inner circle of friends, and said there will be a Give to the Max Day event at 6 p.m. on Nov. 14 at Bent Paddle Taproom.
Moses does his work with purpose.
“I’m not from Duluth and neither were these men,” Moses said. “They were visitors. They were circus workers here for a temporary time. I’ve been here 10 years. My entire adult life. When I first got involved with the CJM board I was the same age as these men who were lynched. Now, I’ve outlived them by six or seven years.”