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Rebuilding Lake Street: Lessons from Plymouth Avenue in 1967

After much of Plymouth Avenue was destroyed by an uprising in 1967, one Minnesota corporation committed to investing in north Minneapolis.

Control Data
Control Data announced that it would “go against the general move to the suburbs and build a manufacturing plant on the North Side of Minneapolis in an area of unemployment and minority group concentration,” according to an article in the November 28, 1967, issue of the Minneapolis Tribune.
Hennepin County Library Digital Collection

The scope of the damage and destruction along Lake Street, University Avenue, and other neighborhoods in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department is now becoming clear. Minnesota’s Fortune 500 companies have pledged to help rebuild these areas.

State and local governments are involved as well. Mayor Jacob Frey announced the creation of the Minneapolis Forward: Community Now Coalition, co-chaired by “a trio of local business leaders.”

This is not the first time Minneapolis has faced such a crisis.

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Plymouth Avenue, 1967

Rashad Shabazz
Rashad Shabazz
Plymouth Avenue North in Minneapolis exploded in violence on July 19, 1967, and the civil uprising continued for three days. Arizona State professor Rashad Shabazz writes, “The scene was intense. Black residents of Minneapolis angered over an incident of police brutality fought with officers in the streets and set buildings ablaze. Many were injured; dozens were arrested. Eventually, the National Guard, called in to patrol the streets, ordered Black citizens back into their homes.”

Historian Susan Marks elaborates: “Throughout the three-day period, demonstrators had showed their frustration with discrimination against African Americans on the Northside. They had focused most of their anger on white authority symbols, including businesses and property. Local police received few reports of assaults on white citizens themselves.” She goes on to note that, “Some local press addressed systemic causes — including alienation and racism – and called on community leaders and policymakers to prevent future violent incidents.”

William C. Norris and Control Data’s northside plant

One of the business leaders who reacted to the 1967 protests was William C. Norris, founder, CEO, and chairman of the board of the Control Data Corporation (CDC). At the time, CDC was one of the largest and fastest growing companies in Minnesota, building plants and creating jobs throughout the state,  especially in the Twin Cities. However, except for its corporate office in downtown Minneapolis, all of its facilities were located in the suburbs.

James W. Worthy, in the introduction to Norris’ book, “New Frontiers for Business Leadership,” noted that 1967 was a turning point for Norris’ business philosophy: “During Control Data’s early years, Norris appeared to take little interest in social issues. … In 1967, however, two critical events took place that would result in his leading Control Data into radical new frontiers of corporate strategy and public policy. In 1967, Norris attend a seminar for chief executive officers at which Whitney Young, then head of the National Urban League, led a discussion on the social and economic injustices to which blacks in America were continually subjected. It opened Norris’ eyes to disturbing vistas of American life.”

The second event was the Plymouth Avenue uprising. Historian Jennifer Delton, in her book “Racial Integration in Corporate America, 1940-1990,” quotes Norbert Berg (Norris’ successor as CEO of Control Data) as saying, “All of a sudden, Norris was different. It was like he’d had his eyes opened. He had become aware of problems and of his ability to do something about them. I always believed Whitney Young did that.”

Control Data announced that it would “go against the general move to the suburbs and build a manufacturing plant on the North Side of Minneapolis in an area of unemployment and minority group concentration,” according to an article in the November 28, 1967, issue of the Minneapolis Tribune. To do this required more than constructing a new plant. Delton describes how Control Data had to alter a variety of its personnel policies in order to hire local workers, train both the new employees and their supervisors, and provide services such as day care, health care, banking, and even bail bonds.

An image of an employee at the Control Data in north Minneapolis.
University of Minnesota Libraries
An image of an employee at the Control Data in north Minneapolis.
The Northside Manufacturing facility was the first concrete expression of Norris’ commitment to what he called Corporate Social Responsibility. As he explained, this required “business to take the initiative and provide the leadership in planning, managing, and implementing programs designed to meet society’s needs and turn them into business opportunities. Along the way, business must cooperate with government, labor unions, universities, organized religion, and other influential segments of society.”

One of the problems with this approach became apparent in the “greed-is-good” mentality of the 1980s. As profits started to shrink in the face of competition from desktop computers and in the 1990s, “Control Data’s slippage from its glory years prompted much hand-wringing and finger-pointing,” according to Thomas Misa in his book “Digital State: The Story of Minnesota’s Computing Industry.” Critics pointed to Norris’ Corporate Social Responsibility as the source of the problem and eventually forced him out in 1986. The Northside Manufacturing facility soon closed and thereafter Control Data focused on maximizing its shareholders’ earnings rather than providing civic leadership as part of its business responsibilities.

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Lessons for the present

I draw three lessons from studying this history. First, it is shortsighted for businesses to reject a leadership role in civic affairs. Focusing solely on maximizing profits neglects opportunities to improve our communities more generally.

Second, policymakers must jettison paternalistic attitudes toward economic development. Norris himself, for instance, referred to Northside Manufacturing as “the ghetto plant” and the premise of much policymaking seemed to be that there was no hope for homegrown economic development in such a place. Jobs and businesses had to be brought to these areas.

Third, political and business leaders must recognize that the affected communities know what they want and need, so it makes little sense to begin the process by courting Fortune 500 CEOs or asking big companies to locate in the damaged areas. Rather, we should start by embracing the work of organizations such as the Center for Economic Inclusion’s Call to Action to Dismantle Structural Racism & Economic Disparities in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the NAACP’s Twin Cities Economic Inclusion Plan.

We can then work together to build a bright future for our communities.

I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this column.