The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Audrey Coleman is associate director and director of museum and archives at the Dole Institute of Politics.
“I know that you get many many hard stories every day but they all say ‘write to your congressman with your problems’ so here I am.”
In May 1968, a woman from Anthony, Kansas, with some reluctance, wrote her congressman a three-page handwritten letter describing the challenges her farming family faced. At the end of a decade of political, social and cultural tumult, what she sought most was stability for her family and their family enterprise.
“Voices from the Big First, 1961-1968,” a new exhibit at the Dole Institute of Politics (made possible by a grant from Humanities Kansas, through May 16), features letters from then-Congressman Bob Dole’s constituents during his years representing first the 6th congressional district and, beginning with the 1962 election, the consolidated “Big First” district — at the time, the westernmost 58 of Kansas’ 105 counties. Based on original research by Kansas historian and Dole Archives Curatorial Fellow Virgil Dean, the exhibit highlights a variety of the day’s issues.
In January 1961, we witnessed a peaceful transition of power: Republican President Dwight Eisenhower made way for Democrat John F Kennedy. Democrats continued their hold on both chambers of Congress, and former Russell County Attorney Robert J. Dole was sworn in as the newest congressman to represent Kansas’ northwestern 6th district. And coincidentally, Kansas celebrated its 100th year of statehood.
Through the U.S. Congress, Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Johnson’s “Great Society” visions sought to expand the role of government in ways not seen since FDR’s New Deal. Dole’s Kansans reacted: a “Capitol Commentary” newsletter produced by Dole’s office from May 1961 shares ongoing polling results in the district, revealing a passionate conservative majority.
Though his record was staunchly conservative, Dole, for his part, pledged early on that his voting would not be determined solely along party lines. This pragmatism led him to vote with a large majority of Republicans and Democrats in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The next year, the district’s conservative stance prevailed, contributing to the failure of the 1966 Civil Rights Act. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a 1967 interview with NBC, it was harder for northern legislators to ask their constituencies to modify their own behavior, much easier to dictate changes to their southern counterparts. The 1968 version, known in history as the Fair Housing Act, did become law in spite of opposition.
Some feedback Dole heard went beyond his district’s boundaries. In March 1968, a Black religious leader from Topeka lamented this lack of support, describing his own experiences with racism in Kansas and beyond: “Mr. Congressman, I really wish it were possible for you to change colors for just two weeks and travel this Nation and then I would dare you to get up and say that we were not on the verge of developing two separate societies in these United States; one Black and one White.”
People and power were moving to more populous areas: by 1960 the state population was 61% urban — the same proportion as was rural 20 years earlier. Due to declining population in general, in 1962 rural Kansas lost a congressional seat; mid-decade, as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, states lost the power to apportion their own legislatures by anything other than population.
Western Kansans felt this shift of influence away from their rural communities. On paper, residents defended their right to control their education by declining to support federal aid and to preserve their century-old tradition of school prayer. They perceived conflict between the interests of unions and farmers, and feared increased taxation on already tenuous farm incomes and depersonalization by centrally coordinated government initiatives.
And then there was Vietnam. Many constituents were concerned from the very start. A man from Lyons wrote in September 1965: “Consider some foreign government installing a puppet regime in South Kansas and supplying that puppet with military ‘advisors’ plus billions of dollars in armaments. Consider the South Kansas army destroying South Kansas cities, farms, and people.” This Kansan didn’t want to be bothered by his government and readily empathized with those who experienced the worst consequences of well-intended interventions.
In the 1960s, constituents used the power of their pens, and typewriters, to initiate a personal exchange with their congressman. Many of the lines of argument are familiar and — for better or worse — enduring.
What certainly hasn’t changed is the fundamental responsibility our elected representatives have not only to listen but to use what they hear to propose pragmatic solutions that transcend party politics and address our shared humanity. Especially today, when polarized constituencies seem unwilling to accept them.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.