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People's Pilgrimage, 1937

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People's Lobby members in the senate chamber

People's Lobby members in chamber of the Minnesota state senate, April 5, 1937.

More than 1,000 left-wing protesters gathered at the Minnesota Capitol on April 4, 1937, to support Governor Elmer Benson as he tried to persuade the legislature to pass a $17 million aid package for the unemployed. About 200 of the protesters stayed overnight in the senate chamber after someone jimmied open the doors with a knife, and two organizers were later convicted of the gross misdemeanor of preventing senators from assembling.

On the afternoon of April 4, 1937, more than 1,000 supporters of Governor Benson gathered at the Capitol to insist on a $17 million aid package for the unemployed. The protest was staged by the People’s Lobby, a short-lived branch of the Workers Alliance, and Benson gave a speech bemoaning the resistance of a “reactionary senate” and corporate interests to hiking taxes on the wealthy.

By dinnertime most of the demonstrators had dissipated, and the protest would have been a forgettable affair in an era of ascendant left-wing populism were it not for the anonymous activist who used his knife to slip the latch of the senate chamber’s doors.

A crowd of about 200 swept into the chamber, according to the Minneapolis Tribune. Overwhelmed, the sergeant-at-arms called the St. Paul police headquarters, which dispatched two detectives and four uniformed officers to the Capitol. But there was no attempt to eject the protesters, who expressed their intention to “stay until we get what we want.”

Through the night speakers took turns at the lectern and protesters sang songs like “March of the Toilers” and “Leaning on a Shovel” (“We’ve made a lot of lovely things just leaning on a shovel...winding roads and highways straight, wonderful buildings that house the great”). Someone brought in hot dogs, hamburgers, and bottles of milk, and the protesters dined in comfort, reclining in the senators’ chairs, their feet propped on the senators’ desks. “The senate chamber took on the scenery of a tired picnicking group awaiting arrival of the local train,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, noting the “unshaven” men and the women in gingham dresses “puffing cigarettes” and lounging “on the plush-carpeted steps leading up one side of the rostrum.” None of the later newspaper reports mentioned them stealing or tampering with legislative papers.

The protest fizzled out peaceably by morning, but the senate leadership was irate. At the behest of Senator Harry Wing, four organizers of the protest (Harry Mayville, Glen Roberts, Robert Cheska, and Chester Watson) were charged with the gross misdemeanor of preventing the senate from meeting and jailed in lieu of $1,000 bail.

The protesters’ invasion of the senate chamber was divisive, with the Minneapolis Tribune opining that it was “an attempt to intimidate the Legislature.” Many observers, however, saw the prosecution of the protest’s leaders as overkill.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in to defend Cheska and Watson, and Governor Benson said the crackdown on the Workers Alliance leaders was nothing more than “artificial hysteria” and “political bunk.” He even declared that legislators “prefer the perfume of the corporation lawyer to the taste of the farm and factory.”

The protest’s aftermath made national news and fed the People’s Lobby movement’s collection of grievances. The leftist activist Dale Kramer wrote a ten-page pamphlet about “how reactionary senators and the Twin Cities press tried to frame the People’s Lobby.” He argued they characterized protesters as an unruly mob by inventing stories of “drinking and carousing” and melodramatically preventing janitors from cleaning up the senate chamber. “There was only too grave a danger that these thousands of common, ordinary—but determined—people would undo the expensive work of the hired lobbyists,” Kramer wrote.

The “People’s Pilgrimage” appears to be unique in Minnesota history. Staff at the state’s Legislative Reference Library say they know of no other time when a group of protesters occupied a state legislative chamber.

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“Five ‘Lobby’ Trial Jurors Are Chosen. Minneapolis Tribune, May 4, 1937.

Folwick, Orlin. “Senate Waits Benson Move in Lobby Row.” Minneapolis Tribune, April 8, 1937.

“Governor Benson and the Sit-Downers.” Editorial, Minneapolis Tribune, April 7, 1937.

Haynes, John Earl. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

High, Stanley. “Who Organized the Unemployed?” Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1938.

Clara Jorgenson papers, 1935–2003 (bulk 1977–2000)
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Biographical and autobiographical information; letters to the editor of the Askov American newspaper; subject files that include printed materials, speeches, and correspondence; and videocassettes documenting the activities and beliefs of a Pine County farm activist who worked on behalf of or otherwise supported numerous left-wing radical and progressive causes, political parties, and politicians.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00762.xml

“Lawson, Victor E.” Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.
https://www.leg.state.mn.us/legdb/fulldetail?ID=13553

Lefkowitz, Herbert. “Minnesota Stirred by Senate Seizure.” New York Times, April 11, 1937.

OH 39.9
Oral history interview with Clara, John, and Peter Jorgenson, December 8, 1974
Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project
Description: Includes discussion of the activities of the People’s Lobby in the 1930s.
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display?irn=10362573

Irene Paull papers, 1934–1981
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: See especially Dave Kramer’s pamphlet “The Truth About the People’s Lobby” (1937) in “Papers related to progressive politics and labor movements in Minnesota,” box 1 (149.C.7.2F). The collection also includes photocopied correspondence (1964–1966, 1972–1977, 1980?), literary notebooks (1958–1975), published works (1937–1981), typescripts of prose, poetry, and acting skits by Paull; her compiled collections of material on progressive politics and labor movements in Minnesota (undated and 1907–1959); and memorials or condolences for William Heikkila (1959–1960), Martin Mackie (1967), and Paull herself (1981).
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00701.xml

“People’s Lobby Holds Capitol.” Minneapolis Tribune, April 6, 1937.

“‘People’s Lobby’ of Governor Leaves Bill for State to Pay.” Minneapolis Tribune, April 7, 1937.

“Proposed WPA Cut Announced.” Minneapolis Star, May 17, 1937.

“Senators Cite ‘Lobby’ Threats: Related How Mob Invaded Tax Meeting.” Minneapolis Tribune, May 6, 1937.

“Sentencing of People’s Lobby Pair Postponed.” Minneapolis Star, May 18, 1937.

“Sign Siege Criminal Charges: Senator Wing Starts Action Against Group.” Minneapolis Star, April 9, 1937.

“Sit Siege in Capitol Ends.” Minneapolis Star, April 6, 1937.

Related Images

People's Lobby members in the senate chamber
People's Lobby members in the senate chamber
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
People's Lobby protesters in the senate chamber
People's Lobby protesters in the senate chamber
Harry Mayville and Robert Cheska
Harry Mayville and Robert Cheska
People's Lobby speaker in the Minnesota senate chamber
People's Lobby speaker in the Minnesota senate chamber
The People's Lobby in the chamber of the Minnesota Senate
The People's Lobby in the chamber of the Minnesota Senate
People's Lobby members in the senate chamber
People's Lobby members in the senate chamber
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
People’s Lobby protesters inside the Minnesota Capitol
Archie Bauman and his father
Archie Bauman and his father
Members of the People's Lobby sleeping in the State Capitol
Members of the People's Lobby sleeping in the State Capitol
Senator Harry Wing signing a complaint
Senator Harry Wing signing a complaint

Turning Point

On the evening of April 5, 1937, a People’s Lobby activist uses a knife to open the door to the senate chamber inside the Minnesota State Capitol. As a result, the group of protesters is able to enter and occupy the chamber overnight.

Chronology

April 5

People’s Lobby members enter an afternoon meeting of the senate finance committee and urge them to approve a 17-million-dollar relief bill. The senators meeting there promise to consider their concerns.

April 5

About 800 protesters go home in the evening; an estimated 200 remain. They enter and occupy the senate chamber, then eat dinner and sleep inside overnight.

April 6

The 200 remaining protesters leave the capitol at 9 am.

April 6

The House Appropriations Committee passes the relief bill by a vote of 22 to 0.

April 7

Governor Benson releases a statement calling some senators’ condemnation of the People’s Pilgrimage “artificial hysteria.”

April 9

Conservative senators sign a complaint accusing the People’s Lobby of “interference with the legislature.”

May 3

The trial of People’s Lobby organizers Chester Watson, Glen Roberts, Robert Cheska, and Harry Mayville begins in St. Paul.

May 5

Three state senators testify that People’s Lobby protesters intimidated and threatened them during their occupation of the chamber.

May 15

People’s Lobby defendant Robert Cheska dies after an appendicitis operation.

May 17

A jury convicts Harry Mayville and Glen Roberts of the crime of “interference with the state legislature.” It finds Chester Watson not guilty.