THE BLOG

Kansas: What Happened to Its Historic Leadership in Civil Rights?

02/21/2014 09:45 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

I was raised as a proud Kansan. I grew up in Wichita, my grandfather started his business in Wichita and my father carried on building that business. I went to Wichita public schools. I represented Kansas in the U.S. Congress for 18 years.

I am particularly proud of the history of Kansas as a progressive leader against discrimination. Before Kansas was recognized as a state, there was a confrontation over the future of slavery. Most of the residents of Kansas at the time were against slavery, and they fought politically and sometimes violently against the so called "border ruffians" from the slave state of Missouri who poured into Kansas attempting to ensure the expansion of slavery in the Kansas territory. After a bitter conflict Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state on January 29, 1861, a precipitating event for the Civil War.

There is more to make Kansans proud. The first-ever lunch counter sit-in for the purpose of integrating segregated businesses occurred in Kansas in 1958 at the Dockum Drugstore in Wichita. Before that, in 1951, an 8-year-old girl living in Topeka named Linda Brown had to travel a long distance by bus to her segregated school instead of walking to a local whites-only elementary school. By 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that segregated schools were inherently unequal and that legal segregation was a violation of the Constitution.

Fast forward to 2014 and the Kansas House of Representatives turns away from our proud heritage and does something that frustrates me and many other Kansans. The Kansas House passed a law that clearly and forcefully discriminates, in both the private and public sector, against same-sex couples. This law would allow anyone to refuse to provide "services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement." The rationale for this bill was to protect religious liberty but its true purpose is egregious and appalling tool of discrimination.

Thankfully, the Kansas State Senate decided to table this hateful legislation. Influential business leaders in Kansas urged the Senate not to take up this bill as it could cause many problems for Kansas businesses and the state economy. Many Kansans from the political right and left also weighed in against the proposal.

I sincerely hope that this bill never rears its ugly head again and that this episode is nothing more than an aberration from the leadership Kansas has taken against discrimination throughout the state's history. From William Allen White's fight against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, to Senator Bob Dole's leadership on major civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation, Kansans have a lot to be proud of in their state's leadership against discrimination. I am still at heart a proud Kansan, and glad that this bill was halted by the Kansas State Senate, but similar legislation is still pending in other states. Yesterday, the Arizona legislature passed a similar bill.

Let us not sully our state's history or give ourselves any reason not to be proud of our state by ever again pursuing such discriminatory legislation. Let Kansas continue its leadership in the fight for civil and human rights.