The University of Iowa, in its wisdom, a few days ago quickly removed from public view a faculty member’s sculpture made of newspaper clippings about the Ku Klux Klan. The seven-foot-tall sculpture was in the form of a cloaked and hooded Klansman.
The university called the display “divisive, insensitive, and intolerant.”
President Sally Mason apologized to one and all.
“For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes,” she said.
An apology was indeed called for.
Mason should have apologized for removing the statue.
It is not the university’s role to shield or protect students from what most people view as unpleasant facts, unpopular causes or unpalatable ideas. Universities are supposed to expose and expound and explain the unpleasant as well as the pleasant, the unpopular as well as the popular, the unpalatable as well as the palatable — isn’t that what Mason’s “all-inclusive” means? And that statue provided a great opportunity to do just that.
For the Ku Klux Klan is part of the history of Iowa. An unpleasant history, to be sure. But history nevertheless.
As World War I came to an end, the Klan rose in power throughout the South, burning crosses, lynching black people and spreading fear and hate — hate of blacks, hate of Jews, hate of Roman Catholics and hate of immigrants. It spread north, and it gained many followers in Iowa, in both the cities and the towns. It held parades in Des Moines and Ottumwa and other cities — long lines of hooded and white-sheeted men carrying American flags and the occasional cross, often at dusk.
A handbill for a Klan parade in Des Moines on June 12, 1926, noted it would be preceded by a picnic at the Fairgrounds. “The public is cordially invited,” the handbill said. And photos show a crowd watching the parade move through town. It included hundreds of sheeted marchers. Proudly among them: Police superintendent John W. Jenny.
Klan members were active in politics in the nation and in Iowa. They were heavily represented at the 16-day, 103-ballot 1924 Democratic convention — it was derisively known as the Klanbake — and they defeated a platform plank to condemn the Klan.
All this could have been a great subject for a campus forum or a history class or a public-radio discussion. Instead, President Mason is appointing a committee “to advise me on options including strengthening cultural competency training and reviewing our implicit bias training, as we move forward.”
I don’t know what that means. But it doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of free speech.