They’ll be racing again at the Elko Speedway this Fourth of July.
Fast cars, fireworks, a responsibly sized crowd, and not a Confederate flag in sight.
Summer 2020 is looking up.
After a month of grief and rage in Minnesota, after NASCAR’s reckoning with the flags in the stands and the noose-shaped door pull in the garage, racing season starts with a frank discussion about race this year.
“It’s nonpartisan. It’s nonpolitical. This is about our community trying to better understand each other,” said speedway spokesman Rob Hahn, who came up with the idea to start the season with a program called “Racing Against Racism.”
Hahn recorded interviews with local sports stars, celebrities, and with people like Clarence Castile, whose nephew, Philando Castile, was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop four years ago this week.
“We’re not changing the world,” Hahn said. “But we hope to, in a small way, leave people with a different and hopefully better understanding.”
If you’re wondering if NASCAR is the place for a lesson on race relations, cast your mind back to the last time you saw a Confederate flag in Minnesota. You might not have to think hard.
The Stars and Bars are in bars and on cars all over this state, even though the only Confederate flag that belongs in Minnesota is the one we captured in battle 157 years ago this week.
The one we keep locked in a vault in the Minnesota Historical Society.
The flag Pvt. Marshall Sherman of St. Paul snatched from a lieutenant in gray at bayonet point on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 3, 1863.
Minnesota captured the flag and despite repeated requests from Virginia, it will never, ever give it back.
That flag is part of our history now. Like most history, it’s complicated and messy and means different things to different people.
“It’s certainly a heritage we want to remember,” said Bill Convery, senior historian and director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society. “But not one we want to celebrate.”
The Historical Society rarely displays the flag, and not just because the fabric has grown frayed and fragile over the years.
For some people, it’s just a symbol of rebellion to wave at anyone who tries to tell you what to do. For anyone who respects the Americans who fought and died to defeat it, it represents white supremacy, a legacy of racism, a defense of slavery and treason.
“I think it’s a curious choice today for anyone in Minnesota to display a Confederate flag,” Convery said.
The Confederacy cost the Minnesota volunteers who marched off to war their lives and health. Marshall Sherman came home to St. Paul with a Medal of Honor and a wooden leg.
If that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you look at the Confederate flag, that just means you have more to learn.
Ask any historian. History is always in motion.
“We know that history can be inspiring and it can also provide lessons that are more sobering,” Convery said. “We want to reflect on both kinds of stories. The stories where we celebrate achievements. And the stories where we think we could do better.”
Ask Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who spent part of last week helping architects and historians at the State Capitol take a hard look at whose history ended up in the murals and statues in the People’s House.
“We had to have conversations in my own home, with my daughter, about the images she sees in the Capitol,” said Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Before she took office last year, Flanagan worked out of a transition space on the third floor of the Capitol, near a large mural celebrating the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, which stripped the Dakota of 35 million acres of land in exchange for a puny sum of money they never actually received.
The murals were moved to the third floor to make room for signs explaining their history and historical errors. But for Flanagan, it was less painful to simply have the paintings covered during the transition.
Her little girl, who was 6 at the time, “shouldn’t have to see that, ” she said. “Tribal leaders shouldn’t have to see that. And I shouldn’t have to see that.”
The fact that different visitors can see very different histories reflected at the Capitol might explain why some of us were surprised when a group of Native American activists yanked down the Christopher Columbus statue earlier this month.
There are still images and statues at the Capitol we should be ashamed to explain to a 6-year-old.
But that’s starting to change. The next statue that goes up in the Legislature will be of labor organizer and Civil Rights legend Nellie Stone Johnson.
“I love the idea of the Capitol as a place where we can dream together and reimagine what is possible,” Flanagan said.
If you’re looking to learn a little more about race relations this holiday week, you can watch “Racing Against Racism” online at elkospeedway.com/elkorar.