Opinion | Paul Olson: When Colorado was the hate state
I visited the History Colorado Center in Denver in March. Several of the exhibits dealt with darker moments in Colorado’s past. I came away feeling inspired by the perseverance of oppressed groups of people and impressed by the progress we have made in upholding the civil rights of state residents.
The Rainbows & Revolutions exhibit presented the history of the LGBTQ struggle for equal Constitutional rights. One display recounted the time when Colorado was dubbed the “Hate State” after Amendment 2 was passed by voters in 1992. This ballot measure prevented municipalities from enacting anti-discrimination laws protecting gay, lesbian or bisexual people. A boycott of the state over Amendment 2 is estimated to have cost the tourism industry $40 million. Many conventions and movie companies also boycotted the state. An injunction by a judge put this constitutional amendment on hold, and in 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lower court decisions that said the amendment was unconstitutional.
There was a display about the Amache-Granada Relocation Center in southeastern Colorado where over 10,000 men, women and children of Japanese origin from the West Coast were imprisoned from 1942-1945. Over two thirds of them were U.S. citizens, and none were accused of any crime; yet, an executive order took away their rights during the wartime panic.
I learned that in 1925 the Ku Klux Klan had 17,000 members in Denver alone. Klan members and sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado House and Senate, a state Supreme Court judgeship, and the governor’s office. Klansman Benjamin Stapleton was Denver mayor for over 20 years. In 2020 the Stapleton neighborhood, on the former site of Stapleton International Airport, officially became Central Park, no longer wishing to honor a KKK member.
The main exhibit was about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre when over 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people — mostly women, children, and elders — were killed by U.S. Cavalry troops. Congressional inquiries led to the resignation of Colorado Territory Gov. John Evans. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names is in the process of changing the name of Mount Evans so it no longer honors the disgraced former governor. Instead of the usual emphasis on facts and military prowess, the exhibit featured first-hand accounts by Native Americans and soldiers and a discussion of the event’s impact on present day Cheyenne and Arapahoe people.
Colorado, like other states, has hatred and violence in its history. The real test for any state is to acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of the past. We must recognize how we are all harmed when one group of citizens is deprived of their constitutional rights and equal protection of the law. A changing political climate and complacency can result in rights being threatened as we have seen with new laws passed in many states restricting citizens’ rights to make personal medical decisions or that dictate school curriculum based on political ideology.
Our state has come a long way in recognizing the rights of all citizens. But there are still many Coloradans who want to divide us into “real Americans” and the “others.” The Southern Law Poverty Council lists 18 hate groups active in Colorado in 2021 along with another 11 anti-government organizations. These include militias, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-LGBTQ groups. It is convenient for the hate groups that the constitutional protection they want to take away from others also allows these groups to voice their angry messages.
It is not the hate groups we need to worry about but instead all the invisible citizens with the same un-American views. Many candidates will exploit those bigoted grievances and work to deprive some of their vote and other rights. Electing such candidates only adds to the division and distrust in society.
I have noticed how historians in recent decades have become more adept at making history come alive in the way it is presented in museums and books. The emphasis is now more on first-hand accounts and the experiences of individuals instead of just focusing on dates, battles and artifacts. Those in our past who made Colorado such a special place are people just like us. We should not want our history to be distorted to fit some ideology or to allow us to ignore current problems. Seeing the unfiltered history of Colorado and the United States can be an unsettling experience, but it should be a welcome one for it allows us to see the progress we have made in recognizing the rights of everyone and helps us better address the challenges we now face.
Paul Olson’s column “A Friendly Conservative” publishes biweekly on Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Olson has lived in Breckenridge since 1995. Semiretired, he works at REI in Dillon and enjoys snowboarding, Nordic skiing and hiking. Contact him at email@example.com.
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