My Point of View: What can we learn from our state, nation’s history?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2021

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

History is a storehouse of riches. It runs the gamut from events and artifacts that fill us with pride to episodes that are downright shameful. It is a trove that we mine for perspective. Any of it can make us better citizens for learning about it, and, if need be, for reckoning with it.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

The Tribune ran an article this past week about the Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit. Albert Lea has a largely intact downtown historic district, which is unusual and special. Because previous generations built eye-pleasing and well-crafted structures, these buildings are gifts that continue to enrich each new generation, as long as we keep taking care of them.

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In 2015, when the Historic Downtown Albert Lea Preservation Fair invited the public to tour building spaces that had been empty for decades, the walls whispered of the city in its heyday. While I was fully in the present trying to keep my young children from crawling in the dust, I encountered many middle-aged and senior residents who seemed to have stepped through a portal that had transported them back in time.

One of the older members of this community later described downtown as a “wonderland” in his boyhood during the 1940s, and it was easy to imagine after glimpsing hidden treasures that remain.

This tax credit is an opportunity for rural areas like ours, and the sunset on the current program should be lifted. More buildings are worth saving, and our community is worthy of these incentives for revitalization investments. I hope both Rep. Bennett and Sen. Dornink will support this legislation.

Downtown revitalization is also a great complement to preservation of the Itasca Rock Garden, which is happening thanks to private funding from the Kohler Foundation. It is exciting to see the garden’s embellished structures emerge from dense plant growth like a castle waking from a fairytale spell. When finished, the site will be turned over to the Freeborn County Historical Museum, and it will deserve a spot in Atlas Obscura’s guide to curious and wondrous travel destinations.

Another point we can be proud of as Minnesotans is developing a voting system that has high voter confidence and nation-leading turnout. Contrary to perennial and baseless claims made by conservatives, Minnesota has extremely low cases of documented voter fraud.

One can draw a straight line from voter suppression in the South pre-Voting Rights Act to Republicans’ push for voter ID laws today. Just 56 years ago on March 15, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress with these words:

“This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government, if the state officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will insure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.

…But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American negroes [African Americans] to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it’s not just negroes but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice — and we shall overcome.”

This speech was one week after peaceful marchers were attacked while marching from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to demand their constitutional right to vote. Members of local law enforcement beat civil rights leader John Lewis so badly during the march that he was hospitalized for a skull fracture.

Johnson was right. The battle was not over, and it is still not over.

A new requirement that makes it more difficult to vote in a system that isn’t broken is just a euphemism for suppression. Not only should Sen. Dornink vote against the state Senate’s discriminatory voter ID legislation, our U.S. delegation should support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

It is wrong to make it harder to vote. The underlying intent is to target underserved minorities, and ID requirements would harm senior voters, too. Voting is the most sacred right in our democracy. Protecting the constitutional right of every eligible citizen to vote is at the heart of defending our democracy.

Joe Biden trounced Donald Trump by over 7 million popular votes in 2020, and Biden won the Electoral College decisively. The Capitol riot that Trump incited is a historic national shame, but we can and must reckon with the fallout of his denial and continue the work of securing “the full blessings of American life” for all in this land.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.