For a state that comprises less than 1 percent of the population, Kansas is known for its outsize role in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. From its status as a Free State during the Civil War to the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision to end racial segregation in public schools, our history will always be interwoven with the national resistance to bigotry and hatred. With white supremacists marching through the streets of American cities and a resurgence of racial tension in the country, this is a history that we must all honor and learn from today.
This is a point Curtis Pitts recently made as he discussed the importance of the Kansas Black Expo in 2017: “Abolitionists drew a line in the sand against hate. We have to keep that spirit. … Kansas and Topeka have to be the epicenter of hope and change in our nation.” This may sound like a lofty ambition, but Kansans have proven again and again that they’re capable of serving as national leaders on issues that continue to divide our country. One way to do this is to be a model for other communities with events like the Black Expo.
Octavia Fisher is a Topekan who attended the expo, and she points out that the cultural shift toward greater unity in the U.S. begins at the local level: “If we don’t come together as a community, we won’t have equality for all. We’ve got to stop the violence somewhere, so any chance we can is worth it.” While the theme of the event was “One Kansas,” this sentiment must also be applied at the national level — we’re all Americans, and we shouldn’t let political acrimony, racism and violence undermine that essential sense of unity.
Pitts explains that our national conversation about building trust and improving race relations too often “takes place far away” when it should be happening “on the ground in our communities.” He says there “needs to be dialogue so we can learn what the community really needs,” which is why expo events were held in East Topeka: “We could be at Gage Park or Lake Shawnee, but we wanted to bring this to the neighborhood.” With the picnic, car show and other activities that were held in East Topeka, the organizers of the expo made it a more inclusive event and demonstrated that outreach is critical to bring people together.
There were also events held elsewhere in the city, such as a parade around the Statehouse and an employment fair at the Central Park Community Center. Block parties gave neighbors a chance to interact with one another in a fun setting, and a gospel festival took place at the Love Fellowship Church on Sunday evening. With so much to do, the 13th annual Black Expo was an exciting way for Topekans (as well as people from elsewhere in the region, including Omaha, Neb., and the Kansas City area) to spend three days, and it provided ample opportunities for dialogue about improving community relations.
If more events like the expo were held around the country, there would be far less distrust in our communities. With our history of opposition to racial hatred, Kansans are in a powerful position to serve as an example for other Americans. Pitts put it best when he said: “Kansas was on forefront of building race relations. Kansas is the tip of the spear when it comes to changing our nation.”
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.