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Century after Minnesota lynchings, black man convicted of rape ‘because of his race’ up for pardon

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Just a block from police headquarters, before a crowd of as many as 10,000 people, the mob strung Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie from a lamppost.

The lynchings would haunt Duluth for decades, becoming the “the foulest blot upon the city ever known in its history,” as the Duluth Herald described it in 1920. The city formally apologized and erected a memorial to the victims in 2003.

But on Thursday, nearly 100 years after the lynchings, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) said that long overdue justice is also owed to a fourth victim in the horrific episode: Max Mason, a black man ultimately convicted of raping 18-year-old Irene Tusken in 1920, and who Minnesota officials now believe was likely innocent.

On Friday, Ellison said he and the Minnesota Board of Pardons will take up Mason’s pardon application, which, if approved, will become the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history. Ellison said that the board is “poised to do justice,” at a time when Minnesota and the nation are laser focused on confronting decades of racial oppression within the criminal justice system and law enforcement, in protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. In Duluth, Black Lives Matter demonstrators have been gathering at the memorial to the lynching victims.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. But 100 years later, justice can still be done,” Ellison said. “The last weeks in MN have shown us we have a need for a better quality of justice. A pardon for Max Mason is another long-delayed step toward it.”

I serve on the MN Board of Pardons. Tomorrow @ 9 am we will take up a posthumous pardon application for Max Mason. He was convicted of rape in connection with the infamous Duluth lynchings that happened 100 yrs ago next week. Tmrw, 100 yrs later, we are poised to do justice. 1/8 — Attorney General Keith Ellison (@AGEllison) June 12, 2020

Mason’s pardon application was filed by Duluth activist Jordon Moses, who told Fox 9 last December, “For us, it’s about healing.” Mason’s application includes support from numerous former Minnesota governors and attorneys general, including former vice president Walter Mondale; the St. Louis County prosecutor and judge now presiding in the county where Mason was convicted; and Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, who is a surviving relative of Irene Tusken, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

“If this case had been submitted to me today, in a society where we strive for justice without racial bias, this case would have never been charged,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark. S. Rubin wrote in a memo supporting the pardon. “The historical record clearly reflects that Mr. Mason was investigated, charged and convicted because of his race and not because of the strength and sufficiency of the evidence.”

Mason, born in Decatur, Ala., in 1899, was working in a traveling circus when it stopped in Duluth on the night of June 14, 1920.

Around 10 p.m., after the circus had ended, a teenage white couple, Tusken and James Sullivan, claimed that they were accosted by a gang of black men on the showgrounds. Sullivan claimed a black man had put a gun to his head while five others took Tusken into the shrubbery and raped her while she was unconscious.

Reviewing the case on appeal, dissenting Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Homer B. Dibell described the couple’s story as “unusual and strikingly improbable,” casting doubt that a crime even occurred. The morning after the alleged assault, Tusken’s gynecologist found no evidence of sexual assault or intercourse.

Additionally, after the alleged gang rape, Sullivan escorted Tusken home, where she told her parents about her date at the circus and went to bed, according to Dibell’s dissent. Sullivan went home and changed into his work clothes for a night shift at the dock, where hours later he told his father he and Tusken had been assaulted.

On word from Sullivan’s father, the Duluth police chief immediately halted a train carrying the circus workers, according to author Michael Fedo’s book, “The Lynchings in Duluth.” The chief pulled every sleeping black man off the train — more than 100 of them — and began interrogations.

When it was Mason’s turn, police presented him to Tusken, who shook her head no, indicating Mason was not one of the attackers. She ended up not being able to positively identify any of them, picking some based not on their faces but general “physique,” according to Fedo. Sullivan had trouble, too.

“They look pretty much alike to me. I don’t know for sure,” he told the police chief, according to the book.

Mason was allowed to go back on the train and continue to Virginia, Minn. Thirteen black men were arrested and taken to jail, seven of whom would be released the following day.

By nightfall, the mob came.

The white crowd quickly overpowered police outside the jail, who had been told to leave behind their guns and clubs because, the police commissioner said, “I don’t want to see the blood of one white person spilled for six blacks,” according to author John D. Bessler’s book, “Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota.”

One of the three men lynched that night, McGhie, was not even accused of rape but was being held as a material witness. Photographs of the vile scene would later be turned into postcards, distributed as souvenirs.

“The City of Duluth had to have a scapegoat to exculpate the actions of the mob,” Moses wrote in the pardon application. “That scapegoat was Max Mason.”

The police chief, for unclear reasons, had already gone to Virginia, Minn., to arrest more black men, including Mason. Ultimately, a grand jury only indicted Mason and one other man, who was later acquitted.

More than a month after the alleged rape, Mason was taken to the former showgrounds in the dark, where Tusken then identified him as her attacker.

An all-white jury convicted him. He was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. Mason was paroled after less than five years, though, after the trial judge in his case cast doubt on his guilt in a letter to the parole board.

The county’s next prosecutor also wrote to the board in 1922: “If he had been a white man, I am rather doubtful if he would have been convicted.”

Duluth saw a spike in activism among African Americans in the aftermath of the lynchings. The nascent NAACP opened an office in Duluth, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. A prominent black activist led the charge in lobbying the Minnesota legislature to pass an anti-lynching bill, which removed police officers from the force who did nothing to stop lynchings and compensated the families of victims.

But in other ways there was little consequence for the people who killed 19-year-old Clayton, 22-year-old Jackson and 20-year-old McGhie. According to the historical society, a grand jury issued 25 indictments for rioting and 12 for first-degree murder. Only three men were ever convicted — of rioting, spending less than 15 months in prison each.

Mason died at age 46 in Memphis, where he moved from Alabama after his release from prison.

Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were buried in unmarked graves.

They were discovered in 1991 in a Duluth cemetery and finally given proper funerals. Hundreds attended to pay their respects.

Their headstones read, “Deterred but not defeated.”