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In 1937, the People’s Lobby took over the Minnesota Senate chamber

The protesters had gathered to insist on a $17 million aid package for the unemployed.

historical photo of protesters seated in minnesota senate chamber
People's Lobby members in chamber of the Minnesota state senate, April 5, 1937.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

More than 1,000 left-wing protesters gathered at the Minnesota Capitol on April 4, 1937, to support Gov. 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 Gov. 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.”

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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 Gov. 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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.