History was breaking news last week in Montana. The publicity revealed some of the best and the worst ideas circulating in our state.
First, Helena city commissioners ordered the removal of a century-old fountain erected by a group that supported the Ku Klux Klan to honor Confederate soldiers who fought against the United States in the Civil War. Two years ago, the commission had decided that the Confederate memorial should have a sign to describe its history. Most unfortunately, that informative signage was never added. In the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Helena leaders quickly decided to remove the memorial from a city park for public safety.
Native American state lawmakers united in an eloquent call to remove that monument to racism and defenders of slavery. Other Montanans decried the loss of history with the memorial’s removal. The angriest comments indicated ignorance of Civil War history.
The Ku Klux Klan history is racist and anti-Catholic, and, more recently, anti-LGBTQ. The Klan was active in Montana through the 1920s and beyond. Forty-two different Klan groups were active in 22 states as of June this year, but none were in Montana, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League.
After the Helena memorial story, came welcome news of Montanans striving to present history accurately, to teach tolerance by informing new generations about the Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum of Montana, based in Bozeman, announced a board with members including former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, his wife, Melodee Hanes, mountaineer Conrad Anker, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill and former Billings Mayor Chuck Tooley.
Our state and nation are in dire need of honest and accurate portrayals of history. Let there be no equivocating: The Nazis brutally murdered 6 million Jews, plus other people who didn’t fit the Nazi definition of pure white. Nazis started World War II, the war that took 60 million lives in battle, disease and famine.
Executive Director Chavie Bruk, wife of a Bozeman rabbi, said the museum will present history to teach people to build a better future.
“The goal is education, teaching tolerance and love, accepting people for who they are,” Bruk told The Gazette Thursday from Bozeman. “It’s OK to have differences. We can still love and respect each other.”
Development plans include two classrooms, a multimedia room and exhibit gallery. Bruk wants visitors to do more than just walk through. She envisions engaging folks with interactive exhibits, lectures, discussions and other activities.
In a video promoting the Holocaust Museum of Montana, Georgette Cassen, a Holocaust survivor now living in Bozeman, says: “You have to remember because it could happen again. There is enough hatred in this world it could happen again.”
Cassen is correct. Americans must learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating them. There is no room in a free society for denying the Holocaust. No place for glorifying slavery, racism or secession from the United States. Montanans who value the Constitution must marginalize hate speech and embrace the equal protections our U.S. laws guarantee to all citizens.