Minnesota Opinion: Justice delivered, even if it took almost 100 years

Summary: The exoneration is justice finally delivered — although 100 years is too long to wait to do the right thing.

Max Mason, who was an employee of the John Robinson Circus alongside Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, is being considered Friday for a posthumous pardon. (2020 file / Duluth News Tribune)

The exoneration handed down late last week was 100 years overdue. But, “Justice has been done,” as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement.

And at a moment and in a state in desperate need of racial justice.

Max Mason’s name was cleared Friday morning by a unanimous vote of the Minnesota Board of Pardons. He had been wrongfully convicted in 1920 for the rape of a teenage girl in West Duluth. He was prosecuted after three of his fellow black workers from a circus passing through town were taken by a white mob from their jail cells in downtown Duluth and were publicly lynched.

Every year on today’s date, we remember and honor those three young men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie — and we confront that shameful moment in our shared history.

This year — and in years to come on June 15 — we can remember Mason, too.


“The city of Duluth had to have a scapegoat to exculpate the actions of the mob. That scapegoat was Max Mason,” as the application for his pardon reads. The application went on to cite the absence of evidence against Mason, inconsistencies in the stories of his accusers, and “almost nonexistent identification testimony.” The doctor who examined the alleged victim, Irene Tusken, found no physical evidence of a sexual assault.

“Not only is the conviction unjust, facts lacked the basis for arrest in the first place,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, Irene Tusken’s grand nephew, testified Friday to the Board of Pardons. “Justice was denied Mr. Max Mason during his lifetime.”

Repeatedly. After Mason was inexplicably found guilty, the Board of Pardons rejected his applications for pardon or commutation 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 him, as the Duluth News Tribune reported. He finally was paroled in September 1925 — on the condition that he leave Minnesota and not return for at least 16 years.

The justice that finally came Friday was due to the tenacious efforts of many, including Michael Fedo, whose 1993 book, “The Lynchings in Duluth,” brought the incident to light again after decades of community silence, and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, whose board members spearheaded the pardon application.

Friday was the first time Minnesota has granted a posthumous pardon. Mason died in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Private and public attorneys; legal organizations; judges; police; the family of the false accuser; social justice organizations, including the NAACP; and the print media, especially the (Duluth) News Tribune, all supported this pardon application and never abandoned the goal,” Fred Friedman, chief public defender emeritus (1986-2014) for the Sixth Judicial District in Duluth, said in a statement Friday to the Duluth News Tribune Opinion page. “This pardon is huge positive news and a reminder not to ever give up.”

This pardon is also a “long-delayed step toward … a better quality of justice,” Ellison said, making reference also to the death on Memorial Day of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It’s a “step toward telling the truth (and) … a symbolic statement that turns the lens,” as Clayton Jackson McGhie Board member Treasure Jenkins told the Duluth News Tribune.


The moment is “historic,” Mayor Emily Larson said in a press conference Friday held virtually.

“It’s an opportunity,” Duluth Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford said at the press conference, “for his family to reclaim the name of Max Mason and to change the narrative of what happened in Duluth.”

The exoneration is justice finally delivered — although 100 years is too long to wait to do the right thing.

This editorial is the opinion of the Duluth News Tribune's editorial board.

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