Local view: We must learn from the mistakes of our pastThe 10th annual Twin Ports Take Back the Night commemoration arrives with a spirit of justice and community. Hundreds of community members of all backgrounds are prepared to come together today at the Washington Center to march through downtown Duluth, spreading awareness, raising consciousness and speaking out against sexual violence.
By: Spencer Roth, Duluth News Tribune
The 10th annual Twin Ports Take Back the Night commemoration arrives with a spirit of justice and community. Hundreds of community members of all backgrounds are prepared to come together today at the Washington Center to march through downtown Duluth, spreading awareness, raising consciousness and speaking out against sexual violence.
Years of hard work, activism, passion and progress lay groundwork for what we are speaking for — survivors — and speaking against — sexual violence. Years of history also set an underlying tone to today’s event.
I can’t help but reflect and learn from mistakes made in Duluth’s past.
This summer marks the 90th anniversary of the Duluth lynchings. On June 15, 1920, three black men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — were falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman and were hung on a lamppost by a large mob of white Duluthians.
During an era of hard economic times and rising racial tension, when a young white man claimed that black men had raped his white girlfriend, the fabricated story spread like wildfire. People of Duluth rose up in fury and hate, like so many lynch mobs across the nation. They yelled, “What if she was your sister or daughter?” and, “What if the girl had been your wife or daughter?” They drove and marched toward the downtown area to where the alleged perpetrators were held behind bars. A hardware store clerk gave out free rope. “You’re doing a good thing,” he said, according to Michael Fedo’s 1993 book, “The Lynchings in Duluth.” The people of Duluth banded together to subvert the law and to take matters into their own hands.
After nearly a century of hard work toward social change, something seems to be missing in today’s social climate. There are certainly tremendous efforts being taken to end sexual violence. Take Back the Night marches are held internationally every year. New sexual assault programs are created, and already existing programs are expanded.
What seems to still be missing is a stronger community voice against sexual violence. The Twin Ports community has the opportunity today to say “NO!”
It is necessary to recognize the fuel of racism that drove the lynchings almost a century ago, but it also is necessary to take into account that the story involved an alleged sexual assault.
Two points must be made to prevent confusion. First, I do not advocate targeting perpetrators of violence with unjust or racist action (or subverting the law in order to carry out “street justice”). Second, I do not intend to discount the struggles and accomplishments of activists in advocating for survivors and preventing sexual violence.
What I advocate for is allowing history to teach.
Nine decades ago there was a grand display of prejudice in our community.
Today we can move on and utilize the same degree of passion and fervor to take positive steps against sexual violence and racism. Rather than using rape as an excuse for injustice, it is our very reason to strive for justice.
This year we can all find the heart and the passion to join together as a community to stand up and speak out against sexual violence against people of all backgrounds. Duluth has a unique opportunity as hosts of the largest Take Back the Night in Minnesota. The stage is set for us to act.
We will march a similar route today as the mob did 90 years ago. As we take a moment of silence at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, we’ll have the opportunity to reflect. We’ll remember the lives of those three souls that were taken on June 15, 1920; we’ll remember the souls of sexual assault survivors, helping them to heal; and we’ll commit to preventing the further disempowerment and silencing of our family, friends and neighbors.
We have the opportunity to advocate peace, respect and equality by and for our sisters, brothers, daughters and sons; our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers; our aunts, uncles and cousins; stepparents and stepsiblings; friends and neighbors; and coworkers, teammates and roommates. We will Take Back the Night for everyone! This is our opportunity as a community to come together to end the violence.
Spencer Roth of Duluth is a volunteer, community educator and sexual assault advocate for the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault.