This week’s Journal-World series recalling unrest in Lawrence in 1970 raises an interesting chicken-and-egg question.
Did the political activism of the 1970s make Lawrence the way it is? Or did the existing character of Lawrence naturally give rise to the political activism of the 1970s?
In Thursday’s Journal-World, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug put forth the theory that the civil rights and anti-war activism of 1970 was a key factor in making Lawrence the island of liberalism that it is today. The examples he cited were Lawrence being the first Kansas community to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and the first to ban smoking in public.
To add to the list, Douglas County is consistently one of only two or three counties in Kansas to support the Democratic candidate in presidential elections. It was the only county with a majority of voters opposed to a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2005. City Commission action in 2007 also made Lawrence the first city in Kansas to recognize gay partnerships.
There certainly are enough ‘60s and ‘70s campus radicals still in Lawrence to have an influence — although some of them have mellowed with age. But when you think about why Lawrence is the way it is, there’s reason to look even further back in our history.
When you think about why Lawrence seems always ready to question the status quo, it only makes sense to go back to the actual founding of the city. Those who established Lawrence came here to help ensure that Kansas would come into the union as a free state. They valued education, so they founded a university, which naturally would reflect their activism. They were involved in early women’s suffrage efforts and, later, the Populist movement. Throughout our history, Lawrence often has bucked authority and done things a little differently.
One of the best things long-time Kansas University administrator Del Shankel remembered about 1970 is how actively involved KU students were in the problems of society. In fact, he sees a resurgence of that trend in current students’ concern about environmental and social causes.
Part of what makes Lawrence so interesting is the broad variety of concerns and opinions held by local residents. Lawrence may be different than the rest of the state, but, as anyone who has lived here any period of time knows, that doesn’t mean Lawrence residents are of one mind.
So did the events of 1970 make Lawrence, or did Lawrence make 1970? It’s hard to tell. It seems that struggling with tough issues is part of our past and probably part of our future. We’d like to think it’s also part of our charm.