Peace and War in the Heartland - Ken Tilsen, Social Justice lawyer


The 2007 Award Committee and the ACLU-MN Board of Directors are honored to present the 11th Annual Earl Larson Award to Kenneth Tilsen.

Ken Tilsen practiced law in the Twin cities from 1950 to 1994. The majority of his career he represented Native Americans, African Americans, farmers, workers and peace and social justice activists. Ken also taught at Hamline Law School and directed their Public Interest Law Clinic. He was a leader in defending draft resisters and authored the book, Judging the Judges about the judges in the Minneapolis District and their decisions regarding draft resisters during the Vietnam War.



Kenneth Earl Tilsen was born on 4 November 1927 in New Leipzig, North Dakota, one of five children in the family. Tilsen's family lived briefly in Michigan, then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota when Tilsen was in the first grade.

Tilsen's awareness of social inequities and the disenfranchised began early in life. Tilsen's father founded Tilsen Homes, the Twin Cities' first builder of integrated housing. Tilsen spent his formative years in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood, at the time the most integrated in the Twin Cities and later attended integrated Marshall High School. After serving briefly in the navy, Tilsen went on to the University of Minnesota where he completed law school, graduating at the top of his class in 1950.

Tilsen began his legal career with the firm of Robbins, Davis & Lyons where he practiced for fourteen years before becoming an independent practitioner. Throughout his life Tilsen has been an active supporter of what he described as "political and social movements for change." Areas of particular interest during his legal career included draft resistance, civil rights, student protests, and other issues relating to social activism.

In 1964 Tilsen was investigated by the House Committee on un-American Activities for alleged activities as president of a Marxist-Socialist club during 1948-1950 at the University of Minnesota. He made news headlines when he staunchly refused to answer the committee's questions regarding activities before September 1950, when the Internal Security and Subversive Activities Control Acts were passed, giving the committee its authority. After successfully thwarting the committee's attack on himself, Tilsen became known as a "protest" attorney, taking public interest cases, often pro bono, and defending other "anti-establishment" protesters, such as members of the Honeywell Project and the students involved in the 1969 takeover of the University of Minnesota's Morrill Hall.

Tilsen also represented members of the famed "Minnesota Eight" accused of a 1970 draft office break-in. Following the 71-day Indian occupation of the village of Wounded Knee (S.D.) in 1973, Tilsen gained national prominence as chief legal coordinator for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee and attorney for American Indian Movement leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means.

In 1947 Tilsen married Rachel Le Sueur, daughter of Minnesota writer, feminist, and activist Meridel Le Sueur. The two had met earlier that year at St. Paul's Prom Ballroom at a protest over its policy not to admit blacks. The couple had five children. Following his retirement from legal practice in 1993, Tilsen joined the faculty at Hamline University Law School, specializing in teaching litigation skills and running a clinic through which students learned to handle public interest lawsuits.



Legal files for selected cases documenting Tilsen's career as an attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, including press releases and clippings, correspondence, pleadings, briefs, orders, affidavits, interrogatories, depositions, trial and hearing transcripts, exhibits, reports, research files, notes, and other related documents.

The largest portion of the collection concerns the fight against the installation of a high voltage power line in southern Minnesota known as the Wilmarth line. Led by a citizen's organization known as SLAM (Southern Minnesota Landowners Alliance), the case was a continuation of the larger battle begun in the mid-1970s when the United Power Association and Cooperative Power Association first announced a joint plan to install the main section of the power line across central Minnesota.

Issues of particular prominence addressed in the cases include black student activism at the University of Minnesota (the Morrill Hall trial); condemnation of privately owned, non-blighted property for urban renewal (Coleman v. St. Paul HRDA); FBI harassment of individuals protesting the weapons industry (Honeywell Project v. Honeywell Inc.); foreclosure of family farms; the legal aftermath of the 1985-1986 Hormel meatpackers strike (Hansen v. Guyette and the Austin Labor Center case); and the protection of Indian lands (Warledo and Cowboy and Indian Alliance cases).



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