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Fifty years ago, area youth marched for civil rights

FARGO-The recent police killings of unarmed black men have spurred protests across the country, from Ferguson, Mo., to New York, to Fargo. In the past months, activists here have taken to the Main Avenue bridge between Fargo and Moorhead to expre...

FARGO-The recent police killings of unarmed black men have spurred protests across the country, from Ferguson, Mo., to New York, to Fargo.

In the past months, activists here have taken to the Main Avenue bridge between Fargo and Moorhead to express their frustration and discontent with a culture that treats African- Americans and women as second class.

While Fargo may not be known for pushing for social change, its activist roots go back some years.

On this day in 1965, a pivotal year in the modern civil rights struggle, 50 youths here marched against prejudice and apathy.

In the drizzling rain and carrying cardboard signs, they walked to City Hall to hear speeches from religious leaders and Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz.

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Terry Nelson, then a senior at Shanley High School, was there. He was one of a group of students who saw on the news the atrocities committed against blacks in the Deep South.

He watched as Alabama state troopers brutally beat back about 600 African-Americans who attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery as a protest against their lack of voting rights.

"We knew that things needed to change," Nelson said Wednesday. So how could they help?

"There we were, in Fargo, so far removed," Nelson said. "The discussion began about what can be done."

The idea was a march from Island Park, up Broadway, ending at City Hall. "What we did at Shanley was just put the word out," recalled Nelson, now 67 and living in Vancouver, Wash.

A key organizer of the march was the North Dakota State University chapter of Friends of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

NDSU Sophomore Seward Rogne helped found the NDSU chapter of SNCC in late January 1965.

After hearing a presentation on campus from two men who participated in the Freedom Summer-an effort in 1964 to register black voters in Mississippi-Rogne and his friends thought, "Well, what can we do?" They learned that SNCC chapters were forming at universities across the country, so they decided to start one at NDSU.

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The group raised a few hundred dollars for SNCC by hosting a folk festival on March 27, 1965, The NDSU Spectrum reported at the time.

One chapter member, Nick Jones, told The Spectrum that his group was not only concerned with racism in the South but also in the local area.

Jones told the story of Dr. William Wadell, a black employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was denied housing 112 times before finding a place to live in Fargo. Jones also said foreign students could not find rentals due to their race.

"One foreign student was frankly told by a householder that the property was not for rent to people with dark skins," Jones told The Spectrum.

The next month, the NDSU group helped organize the march. Young people from NDSU, Shanley High School, Fargo Central and some from Moorhead sang "We shall overcome ..."

Mayor Lashkowitz addressed the assembled marchers. "Don't content yourself with marches and demonstrations. Get involved by learning about your government. Make a continuing search for truth so you can overcome prejudice and bigotry," The Forum quoted him as saying.

Rogne, who attended the march, is now 69 and living in Miami. Since that day in 1965, he recognizes that there has been a vast amount of improvement.

But he said recent protests over the police treatment of blacks represents "a continuation of the issues that were being addressed 50 years ago."

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The problem? "It's ignorance."

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