While South Carolina and other Southern states reassess the Confederate Flag as a symbol of their states, perhaps we should take another look at our state’s motto. We need to talk about just why anyone thinks the term “The Equality State” applies to Wyoming anymore, if it ever did.
Why do states have mottos? They’re intended to convey something important about the citizens of that state. For example, Colorado’s motto is “Nil sine numine” or “Nothing without Providence.” Indiana is “The crossroads of America,” South Dakotans believe that “Under God the people rule.” Rhode Island’s motto is simply “Hope.”
Wyoming’s motto is “Equal Rights.” Its sole justification is a 146 year-old decision giving women the vote. It was 1869. Wyoming had become a territory and didn’t have sufficient population to seek statehood. The politicians felt that by allowing women to vote, the state could attract more women. In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state to join the union and the first to grant women the right to vote, an important victory for women’s suffrage. But what has Wyoming done since?
After that the “equal rights” well ran dry. Actually the well started drying up even before statehood. In 1885, whites massacred Chinese workers in Rock Springs in an effort to force foreign workers to leave the state. Historian Tom Rea documented the tragedy on wyo.org. “In all, 28 Chinese were killed, 15 wounded and all 79 of the shacks and houses in Rock Springs’ Chinatown looted and burned.”
In the early part of the 20th century Wyoming racists joined Southerners in lynching blacks. Historian Todd Guenther chronicled the terrorism faced by blacks in those days. An article written for the Wyoming Historical Society in 2009 documents the extraordinary number of lynchings perpetrated against black men in Wyoming in the early years of the 20th century. “Some people expected a different reality in Wyoming, which boasted the nickname the Equality State.” Guenther asserted, “A black man’s life wasn’t worth much in the Equality State.”
Between 1910 and 1920, five Wyoming blacks were lynched. Unless you were one of them, it’s a small number. But it’s a per capita lynching rate 62 times higher than the national average, and 123 times Mississippi’s rate. Of surrounding states none lynched people of color except Nebraska, where one was hanged. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan organized several Wyoming communities, including, according the Guenther, Sheridan, Casper, Torrington, Riverton, Shoshoni, and Lander. Across the Equality State, businesses posted signs saying, “No Indians, No Mexicans, No Negroes.
Then came the sordid reaction to Japanese-Americans interred at Heart Mountain during World War II.
In 1949, Harriet Elizabeth Byrd, an African-American college graduate applied for a teaching job in Cheyenne. According to Guenther, “The State Superintendent of Public Instruction refused Byrd’s application because white’s didn’t want black teachers disciplining their children, and thus, Wyoming did not hire ‘Negro’ teachers.”
Later Mrs. Byrd became a state legislator, sponsoring legislation naming a holiday to remember Martin Luther King. Wyoming was one of the last states refusing to adopt the holiday, finally doing so with great reluctance.
The struggle continues. The Wind River Indian Reservation is a monument to unequal treatment. The Association of University Women says that Wyoming has the largest gender wage gap among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Their studies show a Wyoming woman is paid 64 percent of what a Wyoming man earns. Yet, “Equality State” politicians steadfastly refuse to address the issue.
The LGBT community was unable to find justice in the halls of the state legislature or from the governor. They were forced to go to the federal courts to find “equal rights.” In retribution, the legislature defeats bills protecting gays and lesbians from job-related discrimination.
Honest Southerners know very well what the Confederate Flag means. Honest Wyoming folks know the “Equal Rights” motto has become empty. If anyone accused Wyoming of being “The Equality State,” they’d be hard-pressed to produce any evidence less than 146 years old.