For over half a century, Ken Tilsen stepped up to represent unpopular
defendants who had challenged authority.
Last update: November 07, 2007
In a legal career spanning 57 years, Ken Tilsen has chronicled an era
of social and political change. He has defended black men and women
during the civil rights struggle, draft resisters during the Vietnam
War, American Indians involved in the Wounded Knee occupation,
farmers protesting high-voltage power lines and immigrants facing deportation.
He has been called an icon, a mentor, an elder statesman.
"Did anybody say I walk on water?" Tilsen joked last week. "Not
quite. I found the rocks."
Tilsen, who turned 80 Sunday, will receive a lifetime achievement
award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on
Thursday. The award is named for the late federal judge Earl Larson,
a founder of the ACLU-MN.
Tilsen's family settled in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood before
he started first grade. He graduated in 1945 from Marshall High
School and served in the Navy aboard the USS Raymond.
Tilsen met his wife, Rachel Le Sueur, daughter of author and activist
Meridel Le Sueur, in 1947 at St. Paul's old Prom Ballroom -- on a
picket line to protest its refusal to admit black people. "That
pretty much set off my career," he said.
By the time he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School
in 1950, he and Rachel had two children. They would have three more.
Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1964, he
made headlines when he refused to answer questions.
Tilsen joined what is now the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi law
firm and managed its St. Paul office before hanging out his own
shingle in St. Paul in the mid-1960s.
The first case he considered significant enough to include in papers
he gave to the Minnesota Historical Society involved defending black
leaders who walked into a St. Paul sewer ditch and disrupted a
construction project because it employed only whites.
"That case I don't think ever went to trial, but the result was that
those contractors immediately changed their employment practices," he recalled.
During the civil rights era, the Tilsens opened their home to Rose
Freeman Massey, a young woman from Mississippi they'd met when she
came to Minnesota to raise money for a voter-registration drive.
With their help, she attended the University of Minnesota. In January
1969, she and other members of the African-American Action Committee
staged a 24-hour sit-in at Morrill Hall. They demanded the university
create an African, African-American studies department, that it
recruit and give scholarships to black students and that the black
community be in charge of the Martin Luther King scholarship program.
Tilsen defended the protesters at trial. Two of the "Morrill Hall
Three" were convicted of misdemeanors; another was acquitted. The
university eventually met all their demands.
"He's my Dad," Massey said of Tilsen. "He's an incredible human
being. He stands on principle and he taught all his kids to do that,
Massey, who retired after a 35-year teaching career at the Milwaukee
Area Technical College, now works with students struggling academically.
"If they're going to have half a chance in life, they need to get an
education," she said. "That's what Ken and Rachel did for me. I make
sure I do something every day to give back."
During the Morrill Hall case, Tilsen met Bill Tilton, one of the
"Minnesota Eight" accused of breaking into a draft-board office in
Alexandria, Minn. "We wanted Ken; Ken was the best," said Tilton, who
later shared offices with Tilsen. "Our cases were dead-sure losers,
but he made us feel we had hope."
400 arrests at Wounded Knee
On Feb. 27, 1973, the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge
Indian Reservation, was seized by followers of the American Indian
Movement (AIM), largely to protest what they saw as a corrupt tribal
government. The occupiers traded fire with the U.S. Marshal's Service
for most of the 71 days they held the town.
In the end, more than 400 people were arrested, resulting in 275
cases in federal, state and tribal courts. This time, it wasn't the
accused who went to Tilsen; he went to them.
"I got a call from a woman ... saying there's all these people in
jail and ... no lawyers. So I ... flew to South Dakota, and there, a
jail probably built for eight, maybe 10, people had about 70 people in it.
"So I went and woke up the U.S. magistrate. ... We began holding
hearings about 4 or 5 in the morning. By noon, maybe 10 o'clock, we
had cleared out the jail."
Tilsen was chief legal coordinator for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense
and Offense Committee and attorney for AIM leaders Russell Means and
Dennis Banks, who were charged with 10 federal crimes. After a
nine-month trial in St. Paul, the case went to the jury. During
deliberations, a juror suffered a heart attack or stroke and the
judge dismissed the charges.
Tilsen defended farmers protesting a high-voltage power line from
North Dakota to Delano, Minn. When utility companies proposed
building the line, Tilsen twice took the case to the Minnesota
Supreme Court. Eventually the utilities dropped their plan.
He rarely made much money doing social justice work, with one notable
exception. When the power companies dismissed petitions to condemn
land for the line, the court ordered them to pay Tilsen's attorney
fees of $340,000. "A huge, humongous award," he recalled with a big grin.
Tilsen defended activists protesting farm foreclosures; members of
the Honeywell Project being investigated by the FBI; P-9 union
meat-packers during the Hormel strike in Austin, Minn., and members
of Minnesota 33% (including future U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone) who
fought to set up voter-registration tables at a surplus-commodity
distribution center in Anoka County.
Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick and attorney and radio
host Ron Rosenbaum were among many who worked at Tilsen's elbow early
in their careers.
Said Rosenbaum, "In a time of specialization, Ken is one of the last
experts on everything. He does not recognize defeat. That's a quality
in a litigator that is really something special."
Said Wernick, "What stands out is how much he gave of himself and his
time to work on these cases that he believes in. What it's harder to
say and show people is what a fantastic lawyer he was, the results he
got for people."
Tilsen's courtroom opponents were less effusive but respect him
nonetheless. Retired Hennepin County District Judge Thor Anderson, a
former federal prosecutor, said, "I have nothing but high regard for him."
Roger Miller, a lawyer for one of the utilities in the powerline
case, called him "a tough opponent" and "a good lawyer."
Tilsen closed his law office in 1994 and continued the work he had
started a year earlier as adjunct professor at Hamline University Law
School, teaching litigation skills and running a law clinic.
He says he misses the excitement: "It would be wonderful if I could
find a way at this point to be involved at some level, but there are
lots of good, brilliant, dedicated people who are doing wonderful work."
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551
Pat Pheifer • PPHEIFER@STARTRIBUNE.COM