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Fri, 04.18.1930

Robert Benford Sr., Community Advocate born

Robert Benford Sr.

*Robert Benford Sr. was born on this date in 1930.  He was a Black activist and community administrator. 

Robert Benford grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in north Minneapolis, one of seven children of parents of African, Native American, and Irish ancestry.  In 1969 he was appointed director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, which had been founded two years earlier. He replaced Lillian Anthony, who resigned after calling her job "political football."   

From 1969 to 1974, he led investigations into employment and housing discrimination complaints as well as police brutality cases. He helped chart new territory though often not without controversy by leading a department only a few years old during the turbulent racial times.  Benford confronted the City Council over budget issues and faced scrutiny from many sides, especially when it came to police brutality cases. The Police Department was often uncooperative with his investigations, while some people in the Black community felt that Benford wasn't critical enough of the police. 

A moderate Republican, Benford took a middle-of-the-road approach to his job as civil rights director, hoping to be more of a conciliator between conflicting sides rather than a minority advocate.  But his work was often hampered by a bitter power struggle among the city's political forces, including Mayor Charles Stenvig, who appointed him, the City Council, and the Human Relations Commission.  In 1976, two years after his appointment ended, his son, Eric, was killed by a white Eagan police officer.  

The killing outraged many in the Black community, including Benford, who insisted it was racially motivated.  Benford took the case to a federal grand jury after a Dakota County grand jury decided not to indict the officer. More than 100 people held vigils and demonstrations outside the courthouse in Hastings.  After that, he quietly disappeared from the public stage and focused on volunteering.   Robert Benford Sr, a leader in the Minneapolis African American community for many years, died Feb. 28, 2000 at the Hennepin County Medical Center from a heart attack. He was 70.

"He is a legacy," said his nephew Lenny Smith, a client advocate for the Minneapolis Urban League. "And I'm not trying to be facetious or dogmatic, but he basically was a pillar of the community. There wouldn't be a Sharon Sayles Belton (or other prominent local Black officials) without him. "He was a man with integrity and character. He was a man that stood for equality, justice, peace."  Survivors include his mother, Christine, of Minneapolis; daughters Karen, Pauline and Pam; sister Eloise Ashby of Minneapolis; brother Clarence Benford Jr. of Minneapolis; eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. 


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