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Walz draws line between Duluth lynching 100 years ago, death of George Floyd

The Minnesota governor stressed the importance of legislative change to ensure law enforcement officers are held to greater account.

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Gov. Tim Walz and his daughter Hope (left) and wife Gwen (right) pass a signs that reads "#GeorgeFloyd" on their way to the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Monday on the hundredth anniversary of the public lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz joined in Monday’s remembrance of a public lynching that claimed the lives of three black circus workers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — 100 years ago to the day.

The men were wrongly accused of rape , and Walz praised Duluth for acknowledging its role in their murder. A fourth black man, Max Mason, received a 30-year sentence for the same alleged rape, but was posthumously pardoned of the conviction Friday , with support from the governor.

“This community has been working to tell this story and achieve reconciliation for an awful long time,” Walz said.

“This is a story of who we are. Without this story … and without the connection to Mr. Clayton, Mr. Jackson, Mr. McGhie and Max Mason, it’s easy then not to see there’s a direct line that descends down for 100 years to George Floyd lying on the street at 48th and Chicago,” he said.

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From left: Hope, Gwen and Gov. Tim Walz talk with Duluth Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Monday, June 15 on the hundredth anniversary of the public lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Walz noted that all too often people seem unwilling “to face the systemic issues of racism of inequalities of educational attainment gaps, of homeownership gaps, of health care gaps.”

In confronting past injustices, he described the tendency “to be very Minnesotan about it, and just not really want to talk about it, because it’s a painful conversation.”

Walz credited Duluth for choosing a different path.

“I want to be here to say thank you to this community for not going in that direction and having that healing conversation," he said.

Mayor Emily Larson thanked the governor for his presence and called the centennial “a solemn day for us here in Duluth.”

She described a sense of “suspended reality” and said the memorial marking of the lynching “links so clearly right now, so viscerally, to the experience we’ve had in Minnesota the last few weeks, with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent realization and unpacking and the broad daylight that has been shown on unrest and racism and systemic institutions that call us and are demanding change.”

Walz said the recent centennial of the lynching in Duluth coinciding with continued civil unrest and a time of national soul-searching over continued forms of institutionalized racism “happened for a reason.”

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“A lot of that comes back to this point, comes back to the city of Duluth, a great city, one leading on so many fronts and one leading on the idea that before you can have healing and movement forward, you have to have truth and reconciliation,” he said.

Walz stressed the importance of seizing this opportunity to enact law enforcement reforms.

“We’re going to be defined, whether you like it or not, we are going to be defined either by the murder of George Floyd or by how we respond to the murder of George Floyd,” he said.

House Majority Whip Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said her caucus has put forward more than 20 pieces of legislation developed under the leadership of its members who know racism for what it is.

“We’ve centered the voices of black, brown and indigenous people in this moment, and I’m hopeful we can get something across the finish line that is meaningful and really rises to the moment we’re in. So, I think Minnesotans are asking that of us, and we need to deliver,” Olson said.

While House Democrats and Senate Republicans could not reach accord on law enforcement reforms Friday when they met in special session, Walz said he remains optimistic that they can find common ground.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (center) visits the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Monday morning with his daughter Hope (left) and wife Gwen on the hundredth anniversary of the public lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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“I don’t think you’ll find one Minnesotan who thinks that chokeholds are OK,” he said, expressing disappointment that lawmakers couldn’t reach at least symbolic agreement on one piece of legislation.

But Walz said finger-pointing will accomplish nothing.

“To go out there and complain and say, ‘See, they’re stopping this,’ is not good enough. My job has to be to bring everyone back to the table and find some solutions," he said "So, I called the other night and I talked to leadership and said that there are possibilities here. There are possibilities that we agree upon.”

The stakes are high, by Walz’s account.

“Us, as a state, either devolving into political and partisan sniping about this, or us adjourning on Friday and not doing anything, in my opinion, will set the tone of how this state is viewed for generations. I truly believe that,” he said.

“I said, ‘I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I’m certainly not trying to read into their hearts, because I certainly believe that they have the same sense of revulsion at the loss of humanity that happened to George Floyd. But to sit back and not do anything leads back to that direct line back down to this memorial,” Walz said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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