‘One hundred years late, justice has been done’: AG Ellison hails posthumous pardon of Max Mason

On 100th anniversary of infamous Duluth lynchings, State Board of Pardons grants first-ever posthumous pardon to African American man falsely accused and wrongly convicted; AG Ellison encouraged pardon application

June 12, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today hailed the unanimous vote of the Minnesota Board of Pardons to grant a posthumous pardon to Max Mason. Mason, a traveling African American circus worker, was wrongly convicted on a groundless charge of rape in the aftermath of the public lynchings of three of his African American colleagues in Duluth. The lynchings took place on June 15, 1920, almost exactly 100 years ago.

Attorney General Ellison encouraged the applicants — Jordon Moses of Duluth, chair of the 2020 Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, and Mr. Moses’s attorney Jerry Blackwell — to apply for the posthumous pardon on Mr. Mason’s behalf.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. One hundred years late, justice has been done,” Attorney General Ellison said. “The Duluth lynchings are a dark stain on our history. A century later, the last few weeks have shown us that in Minnesota, we still have a need for a better quality of justice. This pardon for Max Mason is another long-delayed step toward it.”

The Duluth lynchings of June 15, 1920

In the early-morning hours of June 15, 1920, a young white Duluth couple, James Sullivan and Irene Tusken, accused an indeterminate number of unnamed African American men who were working at a circus that was traveling through Duluth of having raped Ms. Tusken, then 18, just a few hours earlier. Despite the lack of physical evidence and faulty identifications by the accusers — both of which were noted by officials at the time — six of the circus workers were taken into custody in the Duluth jail. On the evening of June 15, an angry mob assembled outside the police station. Ultimately, they raided the jail, kidnapped three of the men held there — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie — and lynched them over lampposts in front of the jail.

An estimated 10,000 people watched the murders of Messrs. Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie. That number represents 20 percent of the population of Duluth at the time. Photos of the lynching and the men’s dead bodies were turned into postcards and sold as souvenirs.

The men were buried in graves that were not identified or marked until 1991. In 2003, the City of Duluth apologized for the lynching and dedicated a memorial to the men’s honor on the site of the lynching.

The conviction of Max Mason

In the words of the application for a pardon for Mr. Mason, “The City of Duluth had to have a scapegoat to exculpate the actions of the mob. That scapegoat was Max Mason.” (p. 5) Mr. Mason, then 21, was tried and convicted in November 1920 of raping Ms. Tusken, despite the absence of evidence, inconsistencies in the stories of the accusers, and “almost nonexistent identification testimony.” (p. 7) He was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Mr. Mason’s conviction in 1922, despite a strong dissent from Justice Homer Dibbel, a Duluth native.

The State Board of Pardons heard and denied Mr. Mason’s application for a pardon or commutation of his sentence six times between September 1922 and March 1925 — despite support for his application from the county attorney who prosecuted him and the judge who sentenced. The county attorney wrote: “The defendant was rather unfortunate in that he was the only man of the colored men involved who was convicted. Personally I never was of the impression that the evidence was any too strong in his case, and if he had been a white man, I am rather doubtful if he would have been convicted.” (p. 13)

In September 1925, the Board of Pardons paroled Mr. Mason on the condition that he leave Minnesota and not return for at least 16 years. Mr. Mason returned to Alabama, married and raised a family, and died in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942.

Attorney General Ellison’s encouragement

Attorney General Ellison met on several occasions with Mr. Moses, Mr. Blackwell, and other organizers to encourage them to apply for a first-ever posthumous full pardon for Mr. Mason in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the Duluth lynchings.

The other members of the Board of Pardons — Governor Tim Walz, who serves as chair, and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea — joined Attorney General Ellison today in approving the application for a posthumous pardon for Mr. Mason. A unanimous vote of the Board’s three members is required for a pardon to be granted.

Attached is a photo that Attorney General Ellison took in 2019 at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors the lives and commemorates the violent deaths of the more than 4,400 African Americans known to have been murdered by lynching and other means during the Jim Crow era from 1877 to 1950. The photo is of the site at the Memorial that honors Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie and commemorates their violent deaths at the hands of the Duluth mob on June 15, 1920. (Photo credit: Attorney General Keith Ellison.)

Attorney General Ellison also devoted a recent episode of his podcast, “Affording Your Life,” to the Duluth lynchings and the application for a posthumous pardon of Max Mason.

The livestream of the Board of Pardons meeting is available on the Facebook page of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The discussion of the pardon for Max Mason is the first item discussed. Testifying in support of the pardon application were attorney Jerry Blackwell, one of the applicants; Dr. Roger Gregoire of the Claton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth; and Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, a grand-nephew of Irene Tusken.