I want to take you back to August 19th, 1991. It’s 93 degrees and humid. Hundreds of anti-abortion protestors from around the country have gathered in Wichita. There’s nothing spontaneous about it, planning went on for weeks and eventually hundreds would swell to thousands.
Most people, including the city’s three abortion clinics, the police and city officials, thought the whole thing would be done in a few days with a handful of arrests. But what came to be known as the Summer of Mercy stretched on for six tense weeks, resulted in 2,600 arrests and changed politics in Kansas in ways that we feel right this minute.
For the last decade Kansas politics has been conservative, very conservative, hard right. There have been attempts to stop teaching evolution in public schools, efforts to make same sex marriage unconstitutional and countless anti-abortion bills in the Legislature, conservative lawmakers emboldened by those protests in Wichita in 1991.
During the protests, people sat in front of a clinics and practicly every day Wichita police would come along, zip cuff the prootestors and haul them away in city buses and a few times in rented trucks. Thousands gathered at Cessna Stadium to listen to Pat Roberts, founder of the Christian Broadcast Network, speak.
They chanted to reporters to “tell the truth” about what was happening in Wichita. Tell the truth, the 1990s and less catchy version of today’s fake news. So it went like that for a month and a half and it emboldened conservatives across the state.
It’s really hard to list all of the momentous events in those six weeks in Wichita. Federal marshals were called in. The leader of the protest, Kieth Tucci, was arrested for violating a federal court order to cease blocking access to clinics - while he was on a radio program. Wichita Police Chief Rick Stone received the Department of Justice "Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award". Pat Robertson filled Cessna stadium with anti-abortion protestors and the national media was all over the story. The New York Times called it “a political windstorm” that hurled Wichita into the “center of the bitter national feud over a woman's right to an abortion.” What nobody knew was how that windstorm would blow into politics today in Kansas and how this all fits into this season’s theme...the free state myth.
It took a couple of years before the Summer of Mercy essentially took control of the Republican party in Kansas. But when it did, it grabbed the party by the throat and wouldn’t let go.
“What the Summer of Mercy did was, in essense, coiless conservative Repubublicans around a very simple idea and then provided them energy that was then salted in (political) races,” says Kansas City Star columnist and political thinker, Dave Helling. “The message to Republican was clear; you need to be on the right side of the abortion issue or you don’t have much of a chance.”
Abortion has infected the way Kansas politicians deal with all sorts of issues; taxes, school finance and highway repair. It’s made these issues not policy to be debated and comprimised on but moral issues, says Helling. “Most of our politics now is defined by the abortion issue approch which is this; you can comprimise on taxes or school funding but if you think abortion is murder you really can’t comprimise on that.”
I want to give the final word on all of this to Archiver historian Virgil Dean. One of our reoccurring themes this year was the Free State Myth, that Kansas isn’t quite as progressive as we like to think. However, the other thing we discovered this season was that Kansas has always been a place where change agents were welcome.
“Because of the nature of Kansas’s early history there were people who were pushing the envelop for rights for individuals. There were also other forces pulling back from that, reacting against it,” says Virgil.
I want to say thanks to all of our subscribers and listeners and I hope you enjoyed this season of Archiver. If you missed our episode on Indian boarding schools with the actor Wes Studi or our William Allen White episodes with NPR’s Bill Kurtis, I hope you’ll go back and listen.
I’m thrilled to say that in 2018 Archiver will be doing some oral histories from Vietnam veterans and a very exciting project on the Kansas City A’s, a story that begins with a sick bed family betrayal in Philadelphia and ends with hard ball politics in Washington.