History means remembering, but it also involves forgetting. The hurly-burly of daily life is gradually shaped into a tidy tale of causes and effects, heroes and villains — much as a jagged stone is smoothed under rushing water.
I think about that whenever I see a book or film about the struggle to end racial discrimination in the United States. Though it is a story as old as the nation itself, we have a tendency to start it with Rosa Parks on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. And though it is a story involving all of us, we have a tendency to tell it as if everything revolved around a brilliant young pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
As a storyteller myself, I understand the importance of a strong protagonist and a vivid setting in building a compelling narrative. We want history to grab and hold the attention of current and future citizens.
But something important is lost in the erosive impulse to streamline this story. The fight for civil rights is too often framed in regional terms — as Southern history — rather than as the history of every American.
One of the forgotten figures at the center of the saga passed away Monday in Topeka, Kansas. Linda Brown Thompson was 75 years old when she died, though some reports said she was 76. At the other end of her life, she was a bright, sweet-hearted child bewildered that she wasn’t allowed to attend her neighborhood grade school with her white playmates.
Her father, the Rev. Oliver Brown, promised he would stand up for her. His lawsuit became the lead case in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Brown — as in Brown v. Board of Education.
This is Kansas, remember, where a very different Brown is celebrated in a mural at the state Capitol. Fiery abolitionist John Brown spreads his arms, Bible in one hand, a rifle in the other and a terrible war for freedom trailing in his wake. That Brown helped make the Kansas Territory the first battlefield of the Civil War, before moving back East to lead his doomed slave uprising.
The fact that Kansas was founded by abolitionists willing to die to halt the spread of slavery is deeply cherished in the Sunflower State. The University of Kansas men’s basketball team, headed to the Final Four this weekend, is called the Jayhawks in honor of the antislavery “jayhawker” militia. Should they win another NCAA championship, a celebration will break out on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, named by Boston abolitionists nostalgic for home.
Sumner School in Topeka was named, I assume, in honor of Charles Sumner, the crusader for human dignity whose defense of Kansas abolitionists led to his near-fatal beating on the floor of the Senate in 1856. Sumner was the elementary school Linda Brown could not attend.
Americans will never fully comprehend our history as long as we smooth out jagged edges like that one: a child forbidden to attend a school named for a hero of equality, simply because she was black. The story of discrimination, white supremacy and oppression cannot be entirely symbolized by statues of Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest down below the Gnat Line. It is also a Kansas story. It’s a Boston story: The same city that led the antislavery movement was also the last to integrate its baseball team.
As a boy growing up in Colorado, I felt a sort of pride that my state was too new and pristine to have been part of this history. But one morning, the newspaper displayed the burned hulks of school buses firebombed to protest court-ordered desegregation. I later learned our airport was named for a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Though President Abraham Lincoln waged a brutal war across the South and staked his life on emancipation and citizenship for the slaves, he understood that the entire nation bore the cost and the blame for race hatred. “American slavery … belongs to our politics, to our industries, to our commerce and to our religion. Every portion of our territory in some form or other has contributed to the growth and to the increase of slavery,” he once said. “It is wrong, a great evil indeed, but the South is no more responsible for the wrong done to the African race than is the North.”
It may be painful to scrape against this unsmoothed history, but pain might be a prelude to healing. Healing for African-Americans, who have always known the whole story and never needed reminding. Healing for American southerners, who have long resented the unmerited smugness of northern and western hypocrites. And healing for the coming generations of Americans, whose lives can write new and better chapters in the nation’s history.
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in the Midwest.
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