Our History

March 1963:

The United States Supreme Court issues its decision with regard to Gideon v. Wainwright. The court holds that “in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy right to assistance of counsel for his defense.” This decision necessitates the creation of a Public Defender System in Minnesota.

Early 1969:

Five shivering men cower beneath a streetlight on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.  As it whips by, the Minnesota winter wind wrests all the warmth and cheer the inebriated men had earlier enjoyed while drinking at The Corral. Immobilized by handcuffs clasped to the lamppost, these men find themselves helplessly at the mercy of the Minneapolis police. Such treatment is not unfamiliar to patrons of The Corral—the only regional bar tolerant of American Indian customers. Most nights, bar-goers find a police arrest wagon lingering nearby as the bar closes, and subsequently witness the police dispensing spurious arrests. American Indian patrons are often thrown in the arrest wagon, driven to the banks of the Mississippi river, brutally beaten, thrown in jail, or subjected to a combination of these abuses.

The five men—all of American Indian descent—remain handcuffed so long that frostbite and hypothermia begin to ravage their bodies. Finally, the police escort the men to the downtown station and book them for public intoxication, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and swearing in public. The men seek out Doug Hall, a prominent civil rights and labor attorney who has become known as the lawyer in Minneapolis for African Americans and American Indians. He offers to defend the men pro bono and after hearing their plight, Doug immediately asks them, “Do you want to fight this?” Doug expects to hear the usual dejected, “No.” Having experienced similar abuses for many years, most Minneapolis minorities refuse to expend energy hoping for justice. Though Doug continually tries to help, earning the trust of minority communities has been a difficult battle—the concept of someone offering understanding and a fighting chance is alien to them. None of Doug’s previous clients have been willing to fight. Thus, Doug finds himself in a state of overjoyed shock when the five men answer his question with a resounding, “Yes!” He instantly assures the men, “I can’t guarantee we will win, but if you want to fight, we’ll give it a hell of a go. And I promise you, you’ll have your day in court.”

The case goes to trial and Doug vehemently argues on behalf of the five men.  The jury acquits the men of all charges except for use of profanity in public; the judge orders them each to pay five-dollar fines. The result of this trial serves to precipitate the formation of the Legal Rights Center: leaders of Minneapolis’s minority communities find inspiration in the courage and success of the five men; Doug Hall proves that beneficial opportunities to fight discriminatory practices do exist; and members of the legal community begin perceiving the inoperative nature of current representation options for minorities—although Minnesota does now have a Public Defender System, it is under-funded, under-staffed, and insensitive to cultural issues.


Doug Hall, Gwen and Syl Davis, Peggy and Clyde Bellecourt, Peter Dorsey of Dorsey & Whitney, leaders of the American Indian movement, and leaders of The Way—a North Minneapolis African American youth-serving organization—unite to establish a law firm “Of and For the People.” They proclaim that this firm, the Legal Rights Center, will be unique: a law firm under the ownership and operation of the people. With service as the overarching mission, community representatives form the backbone of the new firm’s structure. African American, American Indian, and Hispanic leaders advocate for their communities within the Legal Rights Center and the public at large. The position of Community Advocate, a feature that distinguishes the Legal Rights Center from other firms, embodies the partnership between minority and legal communities.


The Legal Rights Center moves from its office above The Chef’s Café, at the corner of Chicago and Franklin in Phillips, to a building several blocks away on Park Avenue. The building is donated by the US Bank and is renovated by grants from the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the General Mills Foundation, and the Otto Bremer Foundation.


The Legal Rights Center celebrates its thirtieth year of service to the community. The same energy that created the firm in 1970 is evident in the outpouring of 700 dinner guests at the Center’s 30th Anniversary Celebration at International Market Square on September 20, 2000.


The Legal Rights Center begins a partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools in which restorative justice becomes a lifeline back towards graduation for students who have been recommended to the district for expulsion. Using an innovative adaptation of the Family Group Conferencing method, the Legal Rights Center supports students, parents, and schools all working together to make sure the youth's mistake does not create permanent harm to education and life opportunities.  The project culminates a strategic shift in which the Legal Rights Center has shifted its restorative justice expertise towards prevention of juvenile justice system involvement. The benefit is quickly apparent, and the project responds to demand by doubling its capacity in its second year.  (It doubles again in its fifth year.)


The Legal Rights Center remains one-of-a-kind in Hennepin County. The Board of Directors and staff are comprised of representatives of the communities served. Because the firm is a people’s law firm, ultimately accountable to the community, it enjoys an unusual level of trust. African American, American Indian, and immigrant communities turn to the Legal Rights Center as a friend in times of need. The firm continues its history as a community-based organization: culturally specific and sensitive to the traditions, needs, values and aspirations of the communities it exists to serve.

Prominent former staff members include: Pamela Alexander, Fred Anderson, Hon. Michael J. Davis, Rep. Keith Ellison, Linda Gallant, Trudell Guerue, Manuel Guzman, Jim Krieger, Joe Margulies, William McGee, Jerod Peterson, John Red Horse, Ed Wilson, and Walter Yellow Hammer.

Legal Rights Center    1611 Park Avenue South     Minneapolis, MN 55404
Phone: (612) 337-0030   Fax: (612) 337-0797
Email: office (at)