Why we celebrate Kansas Day

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

So that there’s no confusion, Kansas Day is actually next week–January 29th, to be exact.

But I have a full week of posts about inequality scheduled for next week and, besides, Kansas deserves a whole birthday week, right?

I just finished reading For the Common Good (review coming before too long, once I get some other posts cleared out), and there’s a part in the very beginning that made it clear that this isn’t just a book about leadership.

It’s a book about leadership in Kansas, written by Kansans.

Because it’s different.

Those who aren’t from our state (and, I must admit, probably even some who are) are certainly forgiven for not knowing, but Kansas is sort of a big deal.

Historically, unlike Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, and other states founded based on geography, “Kansas was founded for a cause: freedom” (p. 8). When Congress passed the Kansas and Nebraska Act in 1854, the choice between being a free state or a slave state was left to the residents of those territories. Abolitionists came from the Northeast and elsewhere to flood the Kansas Territory and influence it to enter as a free state. “Their success helped put Kansas on the right side of history.”

And, in my house and among many of my colleagues and friends, we take that very, very seriously.

Several of the proponents of our instate tuition legislation for immigrant youth referenced our anti-slavery background in their floor speeches; to them, standing up for equality now is more than just the right thing to do.

It’s our birthright as Kansans.

It’s who we are as a people, every bit as much as the sunflowers.

American historian Carl Becker described it in the way that my family still sees it, “The origin of Kansas must ever be associated with the struggle against slavery. Of this fact Kansans are well aware…It is a state with a past.” (cited p. 8, For the Common Good)

My oldest son and I spent a day at the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence this summer.

When we stop at Civil War cemeteries (which, yes, happens with some regularity around here), one of the boys usually wants to know if “someone made them fight for the confederacy”.

They just can’t contemplate willingly putting your life on the line for something so wrong.

I’m not naive about the state of Kansas politics today, and how far less than noble are many of our aspirations in 2014.

And I’m not even ignoring the injustices perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’ then.

We were the Brown v. Board of Education state, after all; we certainly have known our share of racial and social injustice.

I don’t try to encourage my son’s animosity toward the University of Missouri; he comes by that all on his own.

But, I do think that keeping alive a sense of where we came from and why it matters is important, not just for a sort of ‘pride of place’, but also because it is the right side of history, and I want my children to know very clearly that there is always–alwaysa choice to stand there.

As one of my Facebook friends said at the time of the Quantrill commemoration, “the massacre of innocent civilians by Quantrill and his rebels, just because they stood for freedom and justice, is nothing that needs to be gotten over anytime soon.”

So we celebrate Kansas Day, and celebrate Kansas.

Ad astra per aspera–to the stars through difficulty–is a reminder of where we have been, and an exhortation about where we must go.

5 responses to “Why we celebrate Kansas Day

  1. Thanks for posting this: we seem to share many common visions and ideals. That’s nice as on occasion my wife and I can feel rather isolated by our values and politics. But to be clear, I’m talking about FEELINGS of isolation. When we manifest the courage to speak out, to actually initiate conversation with neighbors over important (sensitive) issues, what we discover is a remarkable measure of agreement: concealed by dread, anxiety, and excuses about a gazillion inconsequential (but expedient) distractions. One significant exception is our state senator who lives just around the corner from us, a nice neighbor who morphs into a mindless, bullying, rhetoric spewing, banner clutching, lunatic at the slightest provocation.
    But I am a proud 5th generation Kansan. My great great grandparents settled in what would become Olathe in 1856 and ran a general store on the square until early in 1863. My GGF also served on the very first trial jury convened in the state in January 1861. In Sept of 1862 he was severely beaten during Quantrill’s raid on Olathe. That event provoked the families move to relative isolation and a false sense of safety on a farm 4 miles north of town on the corner of what is now Woodland and College Blvd. And it was at that farm where he was subsequently shot and wounded by bushwhackers from Missouri, one of whom mustering a measure of humanity chose to intervene and prevented his murder. (That bushwhackers faltering hostility is key to ME: my own great grandfather was only thus born, three years hence.) We’ve a family journal written by the eldest daughter in that first generation of Kansans detailing the shooting, her father’s slow recovery, and that one summer day in 1863 when a great cloud of black smoke smudged the western horizon. (Lawrence burning: the more common range fires generated white smoke…)

    As noted earlier, I am often at odds with my state legislators who with singular passion embrace a peculiarly (& frighteningly) narrow and conservative politic that seems to defy civility, open mindedness and diversity. Thus it is that when I encounter my senator at the grocery store with his lawfully concealed polymer and resin .40 caliber Glock, my mind wanders back to those ruffians from 150 years ago with their Colt Patent Revolvers stuffed menacingly in their waist bands. It is such reflection that reminds me that these times are really not so different from “the good ol’ days.” Great work remains, and who will do it if we don’t. So we too shall endure, as we seek to sustain and promote a great, free, just, and civil community. Our grandchildren deserve it as much as our grandparents. What’s the matter with Kansas? Nothing we can’t handle. To the stars through difficulty, indeed!

    Have you seen the movie, “Ride with the Devil” by Ang Lee and staring Toby McGuire? (Based on Daniel Woodrell’s book “Woe To Live On”) It is a great portrayal of the turbulent time now known as “Bleeding Kansas.” http://www.criterion.com/films/17282-ride-with-the-devil

    • What am incredible family history! My oldest son and I did the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid this summer, and it was a great opportunity to talk about standing on the right side of history. I am so glad to connect with you!

  2. Thank you Melinda Lewis for writing this piece and to Christopher Child, whose mother, my first cousin, like me, was born and raised in Kansas, posted it on Facebook. I did not know that liberty was the foundation for our state. It elevates the level of pride in my home state. I lived in Kansas for my first 67 years, now reside in Missouri for 13. I had heard about Quantrill ‘s Raiders and John Brown in school but never realized their significance.

    • I love hearing these Kansans’ stories! We certainly have our work cut out for us in Kansas these days, and our history is far from flawless, but there is a legacy of standing on the right side that we should claim! Great to hear from you!

  3. Pingback: Anniversary Week: My favorites! | Classroom to Capitol

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