Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Go Along, Get Along: Walter Mondale, Minnesota

I like a lot of what Walter Mondale did in his life as much as the next white Minnesota migrant, but I also recognize he's a symbol of what's wrong about this place, too.

First, there's the way he made his way into Minnesota power politics as a young man, after he heard Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey speak. According to the Star Tribune, he knocked on doors and organized for Humphrey's Senate run in southern Minnesota, before doing a stint in the Army and then going to law school. And then:

In 1960, when Minnesota Attorney General Miles Lord resigned, Gov. Freeman appointed Mondale to replace him. Mondale was 32 years old and four years out of law school at the time.

Imagine if a person of any kind became Attorney General just four years out of law school because they had been a campaign worker for the sitting Senator. I imagine Mondale had worked at a law firm or maybe as a prosecutor or public defender for those four years, but was he qualified in any way to be Attorney General for the state? What?

As the Star Tribune story goes on to say,

"His style was such that Freeman, Rolvaag, Humphrey and other party seniors would find him politically reliable and personally compatible," former Star Tribune reporter Finlay Lewis wrote of Mondale in a 1980 biography. "Mondale's was the demeanor of a reasonable man who could be counted on not to offend or embarrass his allies."

That's quite an endorsement of political adroitness and the ability to fit into the good old boys network, I'd say.

Then four years later, as state Attorney General and Humphrey's political right-hand man, he helped screw the Black voters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party out of their rightful place at the 1964 Democratic Convention. 

This story (almost completely unknown nationally, little-known in Minnesota, and unmentioned as far as I can tell in the current round of obits) was told by former Star Tribune writer Eric Black on MinnPost in 2011.
In order to hand over the VP nomination, Lyndon Johnson essentially required Hubert Humphrey to bring a bunch of pesky Black Mississipians to heel. Mondale is the one who worked out the deal for Humphrey. He relayed this story at a public forum in the year 2000. As Eric Black tells it,

In 1964, Mississippi’s “regular” Democrats had sent their usual all-white delegation to the convention. A biracial group of civil-rights activists, calling themselves the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, came to the convention claiming to be the legal delegates, since the regular Democrats had used classic racist tactics, up to and including violence, to preclude any blacks from becoming delegates.

In exchange for letting an almost all-white delegation be seated at the convention (and excluding Fannie Lou Hamer particularly), Mondale's vaunted "deal" with MFDP was that no future Mississippi delegations chosen through race-biased procedures would be seated at the DNC:

The deal was adopted by the Credentials Committee and announced at a televised news conference before the Freedom Dems could discuss the plan, which Mondale later acknowledged was a mistake. When the Freedom Dems heard about it, Hamer publicly and famously responded: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”

At the 2000 Mondale forum, Ed King, a white minister [who] LBJ had approved for one of the two delegate seats, recalled a tense meeting during which Humphrey and a roomful of civil-rights heavyweights — including Roy Wilkins, Andrew Young, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and, yes, even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself — did Johnson’s bidding by pressuring the Freedom Dems to take the deal.

[Ed] King said that the final bitter pill that the Freedom Dems couldn’t swallow was that they wouldn’t even be allowed to choose which two of their members would get the token delegate positions. King wanted to give up his spot and allow the group to choose a substitute, knowing that Hamer would be chosen.

King quoted Humphrey as saying that Johnson had ordered him to make sure that “that illiterate woman” would never be a delegate.

So all of this is part of Walter Mondale's life, and a perfect mirror of how Minnesota operates both politically and socially — sacrificing the reality of Black and other people of color while thinking of itself as above average. Though it's very clear that one of the ways the state is above average is in its negative outcomes for people of color.


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