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Telling the truth is not revisionist history

After reading the Jan. 2-3 editorial by John Coulter, I felt compelled to comment. My major disagreement with his article is the attempt to discredit and dismiss local history of the KKK as false, unimportant, destructive and hateful. He attempts to do this in three ways.

First, he dismisses this research on the KKK in Southwest Minnesota by claiming the Klan never gained a foothold here; it was confined to the South. This is absolutely false. There is no dispute among “those that understand our history” that the Second Klan, the Klan that existed in the 1920s, was strongest in the North and West and not the South. In fact, the Upper Midwest was a hotbed of Klan activity. 30,000 Minnesotans had joined the KKK by 1923. Locally, there were Klan chapters in Montevideo, Canby, Pipestone, Lake Wilson, Windom, and Lakefield. There were crosses burned in many other area towns including Tracy, Fulda, Dawson, Benson, and Luverne. The evidence is clear: the Klan did, indeed, gain a foothold here.

Second, Coulter denigrates this research on the Klan because there is “more important history” that was not mentioned such as the Civil War, white settlement of the region, and the arrival of Hmong refugees. This objection is irrelevant because my research focused on the 1920s. The war and white settlement occurred in the 19th century; the Hmong arrived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

As the original article makes clear, this project is part of the new exhibit about the 1920s at the Murray County Historical Museum. Neither this project nor the exhibit attempts to tell the entire history of the region.

Third, and most significantly, Coulter discredits this research as “revisionist history” meant to “denigrate and destroy America’s history….based in hate and ignorance.” Let me be clear: telling the truth about history is not “revisionist history.” History is not just the good parts, the parts that we like or make us feel good. History is telling the whole story, warts and all.

If anyone is guilty of revisionist history, it is Coulter himself. For example, he claims that white settlement of this “prairie paradise” by hearty, welcoming European immigrants is “more important” history, but totally fails to acknowledge that this was made possible by the forced relocation and attempted extermination of the Dakota people. His paradise version of history is the mythological version of history, a sanitized story that is a half-truth at best, outright false at worst. No one’s history is more important than another person’s history, and to omit entire portions of America’s history because it makes you feel uncomfortable or is unflattering is a great disservice to one’s students. It is Coulter who is guilty of revising history, not me.

I do not teach, study, research and write about history because I wish to destroy America out of hate and ignorance. Nothing, I repeat, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am an historian because I love history. I specialize in local history because I love my home and the people who live here. I also love the truth.

The desire to seek knowledge and understand the past is what motivates me and all historians to do what we do. Knowing the truth — the whole, messy truth– about our past does not destroy America, it makes us better.

— Anita Talsma Gaul holds a PhD in American History from the University of Iowa and is a History Instructor at Minnesota West Community & Technical College

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