Reckless Eyeballin'

Longtime civil rights activist and agitator Ron Edwards talks about the city he loves and hates

Go to a meeting of the Minneapolis city council, the civil rights commission, a community gathering at Lucille's Kitchen, or any of a dozen other places where city policy is being discussed and implemented, and you're likely to see Ron Edwards perched in a corner or camped in the back of the room, taking it all in. Tune to Channel 17 at 5:00 p.m. on a Sunday, and you'll see him again on Black Focus, recounting the week's hot issues with minimal notes and plenty of candor, delivering a rambling but ultimately coherent 30-minute soliloquy that's likely to include behind-the-scenes details--municipal machinations and motivations that you won't get anywhere else.

Edwards has been breaking news and raising hackles in this town since the '60s, when he founded People Employing People and began his lifetime work, nearly all of it unpaid, as a community advocate. He has chaired the Civil Rights Commission and the Minneapolis Urban League and served on the executive committee of the local naacp. On November 1, Beacon Hill Press published The Minneapolis Story Through My Eyes, Edwards's compelling memoir that connects the dots between his decades of activism and the current state of the city.

Earlier this month, when we got together to talk about the book at Curran's restaurant in south Minneapolis, Edwards was receiving a steady stream of phone calls regarding his upcoming participation in the federal mediation process that will attempt to mitigate the rancor that has arisen between the Minneapolis Police Department and the city's communities of color.

The context surrounding Edwards's appointment to the mediation panel is typical of his influence and means of operation. His words and actions have made him plenty of enemies among the various factions that would be expected to have political influence over the composition of the mediation panel, including the mpd, Mayor R.T. Rybak, other city administrators, and the leadership of mainstream black organizations such as the Urban League and the naacp.

Yet it was Edwards who called federal mediators last August, on the night police clashed with residents of the Jordan neighborhood. It was Edwards who wrote a formal letter to the regional director of the Community Relations Division of the U.S. Department of Justice the next day, asking for federal intervention. It was Edwards who later convinced the city's Civil Rights Commission to pass a resolution endorsing federal mediation, and quietly lobbied the city council to pass legislation so mediation could happen. In other words, his involvement made it impossible for him to be left out of the upcoming mediation process.

The Minneapolis Story, like its author, is both convoluted and clear-thinking, egotistical and insightful, racially charged and deliberately colorblind when it comes to criticizing city and community leaders. The book contains some sensational allegations, including claims that former judge and commissioner of corrections Sheryl Ramstad Hvass unfairly influenced an obstruction of justice case against Edwards by tampering with the court transcript; and that wcco-tv colluded with members of the Urban League in an unsuccessful attempt to portray Edwards mismanaging Urban League funds at a national conference in San Francisco.

But there is also praise meted out to former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; and black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Booker Washington, and Thurgood Marshall. Edwards also cites numerous sources where readers can go for further information on the topics at hand, and he frequently suggests detailed prescriptions for the racial and social problems he describes. Encompassing the period from when Edwards arrived in Minneapolis as a boy more than 50 years ago to events as recent as two weeks before its publication, the book is ultimately a fascinating, opinionated chronicle of a black man's experience in our not-so-fair city.

City Pages:How is Minneapolis different racially from other cities in America?

Edwards: I think we are greater pretenders. We are not honest about how we feel about the question of race, or the question of poverty. There are some enclaves set up around the country where politicians will say, "We don't like you. We have a problem with you being here." At least that way, you don't have a strange relationship all the time. That doesn't happen here, although the feeling is the same. That's one of the ways I have seen Minneapolis be different from a Chicago or a Memphis or a Kansas City or a Denver. There is that Minnesota Nice, which to me is just a big disguise that justifies not being honest about the issues.

I think Minneapolis has always been very comfortable with its whiteness, but that started to fall apart about 1972. You had Wendell Anderson appearing on the cover of Time saying, "Welcome to Minnesota." Well, I will never forget the great migration of people coming up here, particularly from Gary, Indiana, because the steel mills had closed. And when they got here, it was like, "Uh-oh, we didn't mean you." And it increased in the '80s and '90s when you had people coming from Omaha and Detroit and Chicago. The reaction to that showed the raw side of Minneapolis.

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