Birthday cake for Kansas lightened the atmosphere at a discussion about a dark part of the state’s 152-year history.
Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Kansas City, Mo., presented “Hidden, Forgotten and Denied: Racism and Anti-Semitism in the State of Kansas.” The program was presented by the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies in recognition of Kansas Day, Jan. 29.
Zeskind is an internationally recognized expert on the history of the white supremacist movement. He also is a human rights activist. He spent more than 15 years researching and writing the book “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.”
“I stand up and talk about really rotten stuff,” Zeskind told the crowd of more than 70 people Monday afternoon in the Henderson Learning Resources Center. Zeskind said the ideal of white superiority has been held by some Kansans as far back as the Lecompton Constitution, grew in the 1920s with the national rise of the Klu Klux Klan, and continued with Hitler sympathizers during World War II, Posse Comitatus in the 1980s, the militia movements of the 1990s and even continues today.
Estimates suggest that in 1924 there was one member of the Klan in Kansas for every 7.5 adult white residents, Zeskind said. Members included law makers and enforcement officers and numerous professionals.
Discussion about the present day ranged from voter suppression issues to immigration.
Zeskind explained that since the passage of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in part defines citizenship, white nationalist groups have asserted that there are differences between “14th Amendment Citizens” and themselves. He said current debates, including voter suppression and immigration, often are tinged with similar rhetoric. When asked what an individual Kansan could do to help stop voter suppression efforts, Zeskind turned to a moral framework.
“Are we as Americans going to let other Americans vote? You have to stand up and say something that invokes a moral power.”
These aren’t Kansas-only problems, Zeskind said. And none of the movements he discussed originated in Kansas.
“Every state struggles to find the appropriate response,” he said. “Denying the facts of the case doesn’t change the case. Celebrate the anniversary of the state’s founding and the promise of the state’s future by setting a strong moral barrier.”
Kansas became a state Jan. 29, 1861.