Race and Iowa

Trevor Soderstrum

“Do you know what the biggest problem is when it comes to race relations?” the old man across the table overlooking his coffee said to me. “Black Lives Matter.” As he vomited back some tangent he had heard on a right-wing talk show, I got a little depressed inside.

It is the the same depression I often feel when I get on social media and discover that several of the people I grew up with post memes drenched in racism and fear-mongering, often with they themselves not recognizing the white sheet draping their post.

Trevor Soderstrum

It can be seen in the need to respond “all lives matter,” even though no one has ever questioned that white lives or blue uniformed lives are of value and in the hundred slights and jabs at those who have died needlessly or live in fear of flashing red lights in their rear view mirror even when they have done nothing wrong. It is in the tacit and too often overt racism displayed by those in power that they choose to overlook because they politically agree with them. It can be so overwhelming at times. Still, I hold out hope and not just because the long overarching arc of history bends towards justice. I have faith because I am an Iowan.

As far back as 1839, in its first case heard, the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court, aptly issued on Independence Day, said to a slave named Ralph (Rafe Nelson) residing in Iowa that he was free! It set the precedent for other states and the nation that nobody could hold another human being in bondage and rob them of their god-given humanity.

Iowans believed in this principle so much. When the Civil War rolled around, and don’t let anyone fool you, it was conflict over the right to own people, that Iowa lost more young per capita than any other state, on either side in that conflict. Roughly three quarters of the male population volunteered and too many never returned home. It is why it was a slap across the face to so many of those fallen when one of our own Congressmen, Steve King, had a Confederate flag on display on his desk a few years back.

Iowans purposely rejected putting anti-miscegenation laws on the books. Far ahead of surrounding states, as far back as 1851. In Iowa a person could love and marry another individual no matter what their skin color. It would take well over a century for the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia (1967) for the nation to catch up.

Iowa was the first state to proclaim to the nation that the color of a child’s skin should never stand in the way of a public education. A 12-year-old girl named Susan Clark was denied admission to a school in Muscatine. With the simple words "the law makes no distinction as to the right of children... to attend the common schools.” She was allowed to attend. That was in 1868, eighty-six years before Brown v. the Board of Education.

We were the state that said to a the brilliant young future scientist George Washington Carver at Simpson College and Iowa State University, “You can come here to study.” We mourned the death of a young man named Jack Trice after a brutal contest on the gridiron against the University of Minnesota. Jack was a victim of racism, and we eventually named the stadium at Iowa State University after him. It is still a shining light of our ideals to the rest of the nation.

Pee Wee Reese is celebrated for putting his arm around Jackie Robinson, although no one can specifically say where and when that happened, when Jackie broke the color barrier in baseball. It was Lee “Jeep” Handley from Clarion, Iowa that Jackie spoke his heartfelt words about throughout his life. Handley, a third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, watched his manager and team brutally verbally abuse the young player during his rookie year. Even though it could have meant the wrath of his manager and teammates, Handley sought the future Hall-of-Famer out after the game and said, “I’m sorry. I want you to know that stuff doesn’t go for me.” Those words kept Robinson going and stayed with him the rest of his life.

Iowa knew “black was beautiful” long before the rest of the nation when it picked Cheryl Brown, a student at Luther College in Decorah, to represent our state at the 1971 Miss America contest in Atlantic City. She was the first African-American contestant in the fifty year history of the pageant. It wasn’t a southern state or one with large African-American population. It was Iowa.

It was Iowans that saw the character of a skinny, young African-American junior Senator from the state of Illinois with the strange name of Barack Obama and thought he would make a good President of the United States, even when others gave him little chance of success.

I have faith in Martin Luther King’s dream because Iowans have often showed their willingness to have the courage to live it out long before the rest of the nation. I know that this will continue to be true.