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Border Wars

Kansas is bleeding again

I sit in the Free State Brew Pub in Lawrence, Kan., trying to make sense of what I have just seen on Main Street. That’s what Kansans call the 424-mile section of Interstate 70 that dissects their state: “America’s Main Street.” It’s a reasonable marketing ploy for a straight stretch of road through the geographical center of the U.S., but as I drove the first 386 miles of that stretch today, I was reminded that, politically speaking, I am not at all in the middle of the country.

I was confronted by an abundance of political billboards with varied messages on a single theme. “Thank Mom for Choosing Life.” “Adoption Not Abortion.” “Breastfeeding — Let’s Talk About It.” And “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.”  

Kansas is where Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009 while serving as an usher at his church. His killer justified Tiller’s death saying, “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger.” Kansas is where the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country have already passed or are being considered. These contemporary and, in Tiller’s case, violent confrontations have journalists once again talking about “bleeding Kansas,” a term that was used to describe the Kansas-Missouri border wars of 150 years ago. 

The American Civil War is held by many experts to have begun not more than 30 feet from where I wait for my sandwich. It was in this very tavern where the abolitionist John Brown often spoke. The issue being debated then was whether the institution of slavery would migrate with settlers into the new Western territories, including Kansas. 

Proslavery vigilantes from Missouri, known as Bushwackers, tried through manipulation of the ballot box and ultimately with violence to influence the outcome. The talking stopped on May 21, 1856, after a congressional committee ruled in favor of a free state constitution. That didn’t sit well with the Bushwackers, who rode into Lawrence, set fire to the Free State Hotel, now renovated and less than a block from where I sit. They terrified citizens by ransacking homes and businesses. John Brown, the abolitionist, and the advocates of a free state, known as Jayhawkers, retaliated. Brown tracked down five proslavery men, pulled them from their homes and hacked them to death. 

The violence of the border wars continued throughout the Civil War. In fact, the violence was the main reason my own ancestors first migrated from Missouri to Oregon. 

By 1864, after nine years of constant raids by both sides to steal food and horses from his Missouri farm, my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side was tired and afraid. Sometimes he even hid in the cellar to avoid his own conscription into the raiding army. Eventually, he loaded a farm wagon with necessities, took his family and headed out on the Oregon Trail to start a new life. I have just driven the same 2,000 miles that my great grandmother walked at the age of 9. 

Some branches of the family stayed behind to hold their ground. My paternal grandfather was always proud to call himself a Kansan and a “Free Stater.” He valued the battle his ancestors fought to keep Kansas free from slavery. 

What would he think of an article I just read in today’s Topeka Capitol-Journal? The State Board of Objections held a meeting yesterday to hear testimony regarding President Obama’s birth certificate and to rule on whether his name should be placed on the November ballot. 

My grandfather wasn’t a man who suffered fools and I think he would have found Joe Montgomery, who filed the initial complaint, to be one. There are 105 counties in Kansas. In 2008, Barack Obama won only three of them. According to Nate Silver at 538.com, President Obama has a 0.2 percent chance of winning Kansas in November. At the very least, my grandfather would have thought it was a waste of time and resources to even discuss the subject of the president’s birth certificate. Grandpa died before the civil rights movement of the 1960s began, but I’d like to think he would disparage this type of thinly veiled racism. 

I was very young when he died, but I miss him still. If we could talk, I think he would connect the missing pieces of how Kansas has moved so dramatically from one side of the political street to the other. More than anything, I wish he were here to share lunch with me. They have beets on the menu, one of his favorite vegetables, and his beloved Jayhawks are playing TCU just a short walk down the street.