Book excerpt: The time Mayor Hubert Humphrey had to choose between civil rights and the police
From “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911 – 1978) and behind him, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (1916 – 2005) in Washington, DC, during the Poor People’s Campaign or Poor People’s March on Washington, June 20, 1968. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Editor’s note: Buy the book from Oxford University Press here.
Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s dilemma was that a cop could be incorruptible in terms of money while being entirely immoral in how he treated the public. Even as the reform effort proceeded, complaints to the department piled up — a drunken cop groping a veteran’s wife in open court, a doctor being stopped for speeding on the way to the hospital to deliver a baby. No community in Minneapolis suffered more such harassment than the Black neighborhood on the North Side. For years, precinct police on the take had allowed vice crime to flourish there, despite the outcry from leaders like Cecil Newman. Then the morals squad used the presence of that same vice crime as the pretext for brutality.
The coexistence of cash honesty and abusive performance took vivid human form in Eugene Bernath. Unmistakable with his barrel chest, scarred nose, and the residual accent of his Swiss childhood, Bernath had racked up thousands of arrests as a patrolman and then a homicide detective before Ryan named him deputy inspector in charge of the morals squad. Humphrey considered Bernath the “most aggressive single individual” on the force, “a real detective’s detective.” The mayor almost gleefully authorized him to “knock off every gambling joint in this town, and I don’t want it done with kid gloves . . . I want them smashed. I want to have tables ripped up and ripped apart.” In Black Minneapolis, however, Bernath was developing a rather different reputation.
In the predawn hours of August 29, 1945, the Minneapolis police received the report of a fatal shooting in a Black section of the North Side, and from the outset it conjured all the primal fears of miscegenation and “white slavery.” The victim was a 27-year-old Black man, Marvin Lewis, and the suspected killer was a white woman of 18, Jeanette Faltico. As the daily newspapers recounted the events, Faltico had moved onto the North Side with several other white women because they were “nuts about jitterbugging” and Blacks are “a hundred times better than the best white dancers and musicians.” Lewis and Faltico had met during a night of drinking and, by her version of events, he had begun to slap around one of her white girlfriends. At that point, she grabbed a gun he was wielding and shot him to protect herself.
By the evening of August 29, Deputy Inspector Bernath was on the case, retracing Faltico’s path in the hours leading up to the shooting. One of those stops, or so Bernath contended, had been a restaurant and club several miles away from the North Side crime scene. The Dreamland Café was more than a place that served steaks and chops and the weak beer known as “three-point-two” for its minimal alcohol content. It was as swanky a setting as Black Minneapolis had to offer in a city where Black customers were still barred from the fancy hotels and restaurants downtown, and in which Black restaurateurs had no chance of receiving a bank loan or liquor license. Anthony Brutus Cassius, the Black labor and civil rights activist, had opened the Dreamland in 1939 with years of his savings as a hotel waiter and situated it in a section of South Minneapolis, where a small but emergent Black middle class was buying homes and founding businesses. The Dreamland Café supplied the sort of racial haven that turned up in the Green Book, the national guide for Black travelers seeking food or lodging without the indignity of being turned away or directed to the back door. When touring Black stars like Lena Horne performed in Minneapolis, they dined at the Dreamland. So did interracial couples, relieved to have a sanctuary from harassment.
Bernath barged in on the evening of August 29, accompanied by nearly a dozen plainclothes and uniformed officers from the morals squad. On the pretext of searching for clues to the Lewis murder, they frisked the patrons, forced the men to produce their draft cards, and demanded that the women open their purses. Two women refused to so much as give their names until they were told the reason for being investigated. Bernath instead ordered them arrested, stuffed into a squad car, and driven to the lockup downtown.
Under normal Minneapolis circumstances, the episode would have ended the usual way, with humiliation and an upcoming court date and roiling Black rage that had to be swallowed back down. On this occasion, though, the police had chosen the wrong targets, and not just because the Dreamland’s regulars had nothing to do with the Lewis murder. The two “girls without names,” as the cops sardonically called them, both had ties to Cecil Newman. Anita Bloedoorn had worked as a nurse at Twin Cities Ordnance, the defense plant where Newman recruited Black employees for Charles Horn. Emma Crews managed the office of the St. Paul Recorder, Newman’s companion newspaper to the Minneapolis Spokesman. In between rounds of interrogation by Bernath, Crews placed her one permitted phone call. She placed it to Cecil Newman.
He was both an avid and indignant listener. Newman had been exposing examples of police brutality for nearly 20 years already, incidents as egregious as the beating of Curtis Jordan by two cops on a drunken rampage back in 1937. More recently, he had begun stopping into police headquarters and the municipal court nearly daily, finding out who had been arrested and why and how they had been treated. Sometimes his front page carried photographs of the latest Black face swollen from a police beating. For his efforts, Newman endured broken windows at his home and newspaper office, sugar in the gas tank of his car, threatening phone calls, and the beating of his own son. What Newman had never received, however, was justice.
This time, Newman and his wife DeVelma headed straight to police headquarters. Before leaving, he called a dozen community leaders to meet him there. And he also rang Humphrey at home, just as he was preparing for bed.
By the time Newman reached police headquarters, Bernath was also on the phone with the mayor. After hanging up, Bernath asked Newman to talk things over with him and the police captain in charge. Newman brought his wife and entourage with him, and in the captain’s suddenly crowded office, tempers rose immediately. Bernath claimed Humphrey’s own law-enforcement committee had pushed for the raid. And why, the deputy inspector went on, was Newman trying to intimidate him? Bernath walked out of the meeting — so much for conciliation — and Newman followed. He helped himself to a phone and called Humphrey again. The mayor summoned a squad car to drive him to police headquarters.
When Humphrey arrived, not yet two months into his mayoralty, he faced two men he considered essential allies and the irreconcilable choices they embodied. Bernath was Humphrey’s righteous fist in battling mobsters and the cops they corrupted. Newman was the mayor’s moral conscience on matters of race. “If I were walking down the street with your wife,” Newman told Humphrey now by way of example, “we might well be stopped for questioning.”
There was no middle way for Humphrey that would placate both men. He had to decide. And as new as he was to elected office, Humphrey understood something about the power of a political leader’s personal example. He had learned this from his sister Frances. Though Frances by this time was living at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where the military had posted her husband, Ray, in the early war years she had been a protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt. In that role, she had joined the First Lady in a spontaneous act of desegregation, showing up at the restaurant of Washington’s all-white Shoreham Hotel with a racially mixed group of civil-defense employees for lunch. The hotel manager had no option but to capitulate to the First Lady.
Humphrey did throw one crumb Bernath’s way, saying that underage drinking at any bar or club should be probed. Then, in the kind of fiat that Eleanor Roosevelt might have appreciated, he ordered Bernath to release Crews and Bloedoorn from their cell and to drop charges against them. In that one middle-of-the-night moment, Humphrey chose the principle of racial equality over the word of “the most effective police officer I have ever known.” Whereupon, at two in the morning, the mayor treated the two women and Cecil Newman to coffee in an all-night cafe. No one dared object to seating or serving an integrated group that included the mayor.
When Newman led a delegation of Black business owners from the Dreamland Café’s vicinity to meet with Ed Ryan the next day, the chief rebuffed their charges of discrimination. Then, it seems, Humphrey had some words directly with Ryan, because the chief hastily scheduled a speech to the local NAACP on the theme “Together We Build.” The mayor also reminded Ryan in a formal letter that the police department must, among its other duties, “protect human rights,” a concept not previously associated with its corps. Cecil Newman in the Spokesman wrote an editorial under the admiring headline “Humphrey Came Through.”
Meanwhile, however, the white newspapers in town reiterated Bernath’s version of the Dreamland raid. No journalist appears to have ever pursued the question of why the morals squad had been assigned a murder case unless there was some other agenda. A grand jury refused to bring charges against Faltico in Lewis’s killing. And in the wake of Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, ending the world war and returning home soldiers by the millions, one Minneapolis veteran wrote Humphrey to recommend a specific program of race relations for peacetime: “Let’s get a little tough with the negroe’s & keep this white man’s country — as it always had been. For instance we could give a negroe twenty-four hour’s to get out of the city & state & stay out for good — this being for any crime & disorder caused by such negroe — a 30 year sentence for his illegal entry back into the state would be stiff enough to keep them away once they were out.”
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