My family settled in Wisconsin when it was a territory — in the 1820s on my dad’s side, the 1840s on my mom’s side. My many-greats-grandfather Abner Nichols served as territorial treasurer and represented Mineral Point in the first state Legislature. My great-grandfather campaigned across southwest Wisconsin for Robert M. La Follette and John Blaine, and served as Blue River's village president. Other relatives were elected to town boards, village boards, county boards and school boards, and to a few legislative seats.

Growing up in Racine County, I learned how the Underground Railroad operated in Burlington and Racine, where Joshua Glover took refuge in his flight from slavery — before a crowd of 5,000 abolitionists freed him from a Milwaukee jail in 1854 and spirited him to free Canada. I was taught to be proud of Wisconsin's heritage as an anti-slavery state where the Supreme Court ruled the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, and where Wisconsinites refused to cooperate with the slave hunters who sought to extend the sinful reach of human bondage.

With relatives from Grant County, I gathered on the courthouse square in Lancaster, around the oldest memorial to the Wisconsin regiments that fought in the Civil War, celebrating “the memory of the brave soldiers of Grant County who fell in defense of universal liberty.”

A century after that marker was erected, our friend Ed Garvey went south with the freedom riders to join the African-American-led struggle against Jim Crow segregation. Lloyd Barbee, whom my dad knew from UW Law School days, organized civil rights marches in Milwaukee. Another of those remarkable UW Law School grads, Vel Phillips, lived long enough to tell my daughter Whitman stories of her pioneering campaigns as an African-American woman seeking (and winning) local and statewide office.

Wisconsin has not always gotten things right, and there are so many inequities that still must be addressed, so many struggles yet to be waged and won. Yet I have always respected the legacies of the Wisconsinites who have taken risks to put our state — and our nation — on the right side of history.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has earned a place on the list of these Wisconsinites. Born in Milwaukee and raised during the first years of his life in Fond du Lac, Kaepernick moved with his family to California when he was young. But he is a Wisconsin native and, as another Wisconsin native, I know how important it is for this state to recognize his tremendous talent and his vital activism on behalf of racial justice.

Wisconsinites took note when Colin Kaepernick took a knee as the national anthem was played before 49ers games in 2016. There were those who disagreed with his approach. Yet people of good will respected the sincerity of a man who put his own career at risk to focus attention on the killings of young African-American men by police officers. “This stand wasn't for me. This stand wasn't because I feel like I'm being put down in any kind of way,” Kaepernick explained. “This is because I'm seeing things happen to people that don't have a voice, people that don't have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and affect change. So I'm in the position where I can do that, and I'm going to do that for people that can't.”

This is why it was so unsettling for so many Wisconsinites when the Republicans who control the state Legislature objected to mentioning Kaepernick in a resolution honoring Black History Month. According to Time magazine, “State Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Republican, said GOP lawmakers would not endorse Kaepernick's inclusion ‘for obvious reasons’ and to avoid including controversial figures.”

Give me a break.

Yes, the actions Kaepernick took to highlight concerns about police brutality stirred controversy. But history is not made by people who avoid controversy.

The abolitionist protests in Milwaukee 165 years ago were controversial. So, too, were the civil rights protests of 55 years ago. Don’t let anyone tell you that what Wisconsin is now proud to celebrate — as part of Black History Month and as part of the whole history of this state — wasn’t once controversial.

Kaepernick has been widely honored for his protest. He’s the recipient of the 2017 GQ Magazine Citizen of the Year award, the 2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, the 2017 American Civil Liberties Union Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award, the 2017 Puffin/Nation Institute Prize for Creative Citizenship, the 2018 Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Medal and the 2018 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. And he has earned high marks for giving away $1 million to a long list of worthy causes, including Milwaukee’s Urban Underground, a group that works with teenagers in the city.

The legislators who went out of their way to disregard Colin Kaepernick did not just dismiss him. They dismissed much of what is best about Wisconsin history. Kaepernick’s advocacy on behalf of racial justice merits recognition by the state where he was born. Doing so puts Wisconsin on the right side of history. As state Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, so well and wisely reminded the legislators who objected to Kaepernick: “Many of these people that you don’t agree with will still be in the history books that your children and grandchildren will be reading.”

jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

 

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