The transgressions of the Representative for Iowa’s 4th Congressional district are well-known: his derogatory characterizations of Mexican migrants, his nativist streak, and, most recently, his wondering remarks about just when it was that white supremacy became offensive. He has consistently, and increasingly, embarrassed Iowans on the national stage by tipping his hat towards the racist and the extreme.
This is not what Iowa has been about, and the fact that it has gone on as long as it has is a blemish on the story of our state at this hour of history. Every day that Rep. Steve King is in office is a betrayal of Iowa’s deeper tradition of welcoming people of various races, classes, and backgrounds. If there is something worth conserving, if there is a tradition worth honoring in our state, it is this.
In its first ever case, the Iowa Supreme Court declared that people of all colors have equal protection between our borders, and that any slave who so much as set foot on our soil was to be considered a free man and under the safety of our laws. Iowa never needed a case like Loving v. Virginia (which struck down anti-miscegenation laws) because Iowa never passed a law against interracial marriage, and the Iowa Court had already ruled against segregation nearly a century before Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down in 1954. The University of Iowa was the first university in the United States to admit women and people of color on an equal basis and it was the first to graduate them from law school; additionally, the first varsity college athlete of color was a Hawkeye.
Iowa has also been for many a refuge and a home. George Washington Carver found in Iowa safety, education, and the first place that made him feel, in his words, like he was a human being. The soldiers of the 17th Provisional Training Regiment (who lead units in France in WWI) found welcome here as the first class of black military officers ever commissioned in this country. The Tai Dam refugees and victims of the Yugoslav conflict found safe harbor here from war. And when Muslim Americans built the country’s first Mosque, it was in Cedar Rapids that they did it. But Iowa has also stood for those beyond her borders, too. It was an Iowa farmer who extended the very first hand of friendship to Japan after World War II, when he organized an airlift of hogs and seed-corn for the typhoon-stricken people of Yamanashi, and it was Governor Robert D. Ray who went to Washington to plead on behalf of the “boat people” fleeing the Vietnam conflict.
This is Iowa at its best: caring for our neighbors, and for strangers, too. This is the tradition of the broader Midwest as well, which from 1787 was under the law known as the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery, affirmed the natural rights of all, and mandated that Native Americans within the jurisdiction were to be respected in their property rights and protected from harm. Steve King’s statements stand not firmly in the Iowa tradition, but against its best elements. Iowa has room for people of good faith who are also of different worldviews and backgrounds: conservatives, liberals, and libertarians; people of all colors; and people of diverse religious belief.
What we do not have room for are racial animus and remarks that make our Hispanic or black neighbors feel unwelcome or unsafe. For conservatives and liberals alike in the 4th district, there is a real opportunity for alternatives true to the tradition of this state. If Republicans in the 4th are looking for a conservative, pro-life, limited-government candidate, as we are, they have it in Randy Feenstra, and Democrats found in J.D. Scholten a strong candidate in the midterms. Let there be a good contest between the two candidates, and let Iowans reason together about what is best for the state and country. At this point, with the party shunning King both locally and nationally, it looks as though he’ll lose his next election roundly.
In the meantime, Iowans should be more vocal, the party should be more vocal, and King should be pressured to resign. Whatever happens, a Representative who displays the Confederate flag on his desk—a flag many Iowa boys died to take down forever—can represent us no longer. The next person to represent Iowa’s fine 4th district must embody the spirit of neighborly charity in which Iowans take pride.
Jim Kirkwood is the nom de plume of a native Iowan and writer.
Joe Carroll is a native Iowan and doctoral student at Saint Louis University.