Commentary

Instead of canceling Missouri history, Republican legislators should study it | Opinion

September 7, 2021 8:00 am

Close-Up of rainbow flag with crowd In background during LGBTQ Pride Parade (Getty Images).

Last week a handful Missouri Republicans attempted to erase history.

According to reports, staffers and elected officials in the legislature pressured the Missouri State Museum into removing and then relocating an exhibit called Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights, which documents the early days of LGBTQ activism in the state. The exhibit, according to legislative aide Uriah Stark, was “pushing the LGBT agenda in our state capitol” with several “literally in your face banners that you can’t walk through the museum without seeing.”

Mr. Stark and his Republican colleagues are wrong. And I should know, because I helped curate the exhibit alongside fourteen thoughtful and considerate students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The exhibit’s origins lay in an “Introduction to Public History” I taught when I was on the faculty at UMKC. In October of 2016, a group of citizen volunteers installed an official marker in downtown Kansas City to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first-ever national meeting of gay rights activists.  To help the city recognize this historic event, my students and I designed a twelve-panel traveling exhibit that told visitors about the meeting’s background and pointed people to the new marker.

As a teacher, you always hope that your students will do good work. Well, the students who helped design Making History hit it out of the park. The exhibit they created received funding from the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area in order to be built. Their finished project received awards from the National Council on Public History and the Midwestern History Association. And the physical exhibit has been traveling to museums, libraries, and historical societies across Missouri since the summer of 2017, to positive reviews. It was supposed to be on display at the state capitol for four months. It lasted all of four days.

Making History is an award-winning work of scholarship. It is not a work of advocacy, as some of Missouri’s Republican officials maintain. It documents in great detail how in 1966 gay rights activists from across the country met in Kansas City to discuss how they could attain full and equal rights. This was at a time when police raided bars that allowed same-sex couples to gather, and the federal government banned the hiring of gay employees. The organizing work these citizens did in Kansas City would pave the way for the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement that took shape after the famed uprising at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969.

This is Missouri’s history. This is America’s history. This is our history. And to suggest that remembering this past is somehow tantamount to “pushing the LGBT agenda” is to suggest that gay women and men are not full and equal members of the United States.

According to Gov. Mike Parson, Making History came down because the State Museum did not follow Missouri law in acquiring it — an excuse that many have questioned. The Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, claimed that it moved the display because “exhibits on loan from other institutions like this one are often housed at Jefferson Landing State Historic Site.”

Both simply add insult to injury, for they reinforce the notion that Missouri’s LGBTQ residents are second class citizens because their history is second class history.

If the display truly was relocated because of mistakes wrought by existing policies and procedures, then we look forward to the speedy revision of these protocols so that Making History can be reinstalled at the Missouri State Museum.

There’s an old saying that goes, “Those who don’t learn history are destined to repeat it.” The phrase rings true in Jefferson City. In their removal of Making History from the Capitol, Missouri’s Republicans did more than simply attempt to prevent people from learning about the past. They also reenacted the kinds of discrimination the LGBTQ community once faced. Maybe instead of canceling history, Republican legislators should study it.

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Christopher Cantwell
Christopher Cantwell

Christopher Cantwell is an assistant professor of history and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He previously held a similar position at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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