History recycled in this year’s Kansas school board elections

November 1, 2021 3:33 am

In school board elections this year, writes Gretchen Eick, you should be aware of our country’s political history and how it affects us still. (Getty Images)

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. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator and publisher in Wichita.

Don’t sleep through the elections Nov. 2! Across the United States, and in Kansas City and Wichita, extremist candidates are determined to take over local school boards. Their rallying cries are “no mask mandates,” “no critical race theory,” “no vaccine requirements.” Some label incumbents “fascist” and “totalitarian,” socialists or even communists.

Do they know the history they repeat?

In Kansas? Yes, Kansas — where tens of thousands of Black refugees fled in a movement they identified with the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt. Beginning 140 years ago, the South they fled was afflicted with terrorism. White supremacists retook power using terrorism tactics that included murder by mob (lynching) and visits from Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups. They carried torches to set afire homes of those who dared vote or stand up for the citizenship rights guaranteed them in the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

By the early 20th century, white supremacists, back in power across the South, passed legislation disenfranchising Black voters (despite the 15th Amendment’s stated protection of Black voters). New state laws incentivized Republicans to purge the Republican party in the South of Black people. That is, the number of Black voters declined because of these state laws, making Blacks Republicans no longer important. The Republican party ejected Black Republicans from leadership in southern states and became “Lily-White Republicans.”

History recycles. Tactics from the past can be recycled to achieve similar ends in the present.

As of early September, according to Voting Rights Lab, 41 anti-voter state laws have been enacted affecting 55 million eligible voters. They limit the right to register, vote by mail, early vote, assisted voting, and voter ID. Voting Rights Lab writes: “Early and mail voting accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total vote in the 2020 presidential election, … methods (that) were broadly used by voters of all races and in both major parties, as well as independents. Mail and early voting were especially popular among veterans and active duty military, as well as voters age 55 and older.”

A slew of candidates are running on today’s version of Lily-White platforms for local offices including school boards, often with financial support from national political action committees. Local offices previously were elected by geographic district but now are at-large, which makes it less likely people in minority areas can elect someone from their community to represent them.

This is the recycled story of how Republicans became synonymous with “white” and began to dominate Southern politics. Of course, both political parties have played the game. The solidly Democratic South had returned by 1877, and the party remained dominant there for nearly 100 years as the party of white supremacists.

School board elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, but now candidates are funded by a national political action committee, according to Sharon Hartin Iorio, the dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.

In their vocal opposition to the teaching of critical race theory, these candidates foment anger about a non-issue. The Kansas State Board of Education released a statement in July saying critical race theory is not and has never been part of the state’s standards. Do facts matter?

Don’t be hoodwinked. Tell your family, friends, congregations, social clubs, and social media contacts that the future of our public schools — the backbone of democracy — depends on their votes Tuesday. Our children’s opportunity to safely learn the beautiful breadth of our history, those of all colors, ethnicities, religions who devoted their lives to building an inclusive and caring nation, is at stake.

By 1972, Republican President Richard Nixon had successfully waged his re-election campaign based on what he called his “Southern strategy” of courting white supremacists. He swept the South, the first Republican to win all southern states. The rest is history.

It’s past time to reject dog whistle appeals to our worst selves. Vote! And be careful who you vote for.

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.