by Gail Jarvis
The controversy in Greenville, South Carolina, resulting from the county's failure to enact an official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has been correctly described as a "cultural clash." Although media have used this term, the deeper significance of its meaning has not been adequately addressed. To put the Greenville controversy into perspective, the first point to be made is that Greenville has a history of amicable race relations; the conflict-free desegregation of its facilities offered quite a contrast to the turmoil that occurred in other municipalities.
But Greenville citizens are sharply divided on the issue of an official King holiday for the same reasons that many states as well as the Federal government resisted its creation. Some claim that reluctance to approve the holiday is racially motivated but, although that might be a factor in some cases, it is unfair to characterize all opposition that way, especially if you consider Greenville's conciliatory racial history. From the outset opposition to the holiday by Congress and the states was based primarily on pragmatic reasons, which will be cited later.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson is coordinating a campaign to persuade the Greenville County Council to enact the holiday. Jackson has enlisted busloads of recruits from Atlanta and other cities to present a show of force at county council meetings. A recent council meeting had to be abruptly ended when MLK holiday supporters began interrupting speakers by shouting, breaking into song and grabbing microphones. Reverend Jackson along with other supporters refused to leave the council chamber at the end of the meeting, choosing instead to spend the night there as a form of protest. In addition, advocates for the holiday have staged prayer-vigils and threatened massive demonstrations, disruptive marches and an economic boycott if the county council does not establish the holiday.
What is happening in Greenville is part of a trend. Similar tactics — petitions, marches, demonstrations and threats of boycotts — were effective in creating the state King holidays we have today. Although these tactics were successful, they give a conflicted meaning to the word "celebration." If citizens are coerced into celebrating a holiday, can it truly be called a celebration? We know that in many communities the observance of the King holiday has been less than enthusiastic.
The Greenville, South Carolina, conflict raises a question: Should public holidays be created as a result of threats and intimidation? And taking a long-range view of "cultural clashes," another question is: Can a multicultural society have public holidays celebrating specific events or specific persons? Currently the U.S. has only two national holidays that acknowledge specific individuals: Martin Luther King's birthday and Columbus Day. One is promoted and the other discouraged. Neither of these holiday enjoys unanimous support and the reasons for supporting one are basically the same reasons for opposing the other.
The first legislation calling for a federal Martin Luther King holiday was introduced in 1968, but Congress made no attempt to enact the holiday. However, the King forces persevered and even intensified their campaign. The campaign very quickly took on the aspect of a crusade and was extended to the states, again with little success. Resistance to creating the new holiday resulted from a number of reasons, including a natural reluctance to make major changes in government structures. The annual cost of a paid public holiday was also a primary restraint. Neither the Federal government nor the states could afford to fund a new holiday, so replacing an existing holiday with a new one was the only solution.
But the major obstacle to the King holiday was concern over allegations that some of King's top advisors had ties to the Communist Party, USA. The former Soviet Union was at the apex of its power in the early 1960s and Soviet missiles had been detected on the island of Cuba, ninety miles from the Florida coast. Consequently, our intelligence community was actively monitoring the Communist Party, USA. In 1963, concern over the possible influence this group might have on King's organization persuaded Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretaps of King's home, office and lodgings.
Many legislators were hesitant to approve the King holiday because they didn't know what these surveillance tapes might reveal. In addition to potential Communist influence there were rumors that the tapes disclosed unsavory conduct by King and some of his top aides. So, after almost a decade of campaigning, only four states had official King holidays and the year 1976 drew to a close without congressional approval of a Federal King holiday.
In January 1977, King's widow, acting under the auspices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia's United States District Court. Clarence M. Kelley, head of the FBI was named as defendant and was ordered to purge the Bureau's files of all recorded tapes, microphonic surveillance data and transcripts of wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the period from 1963 through 1968. All FBI files on Dr. King were to be sealed for a period of 50 years until the year 2027. Although this demand would seem to conflict with the Freedom of Information Act, Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled in favor of the SCLC, and the FBI's records were sealed and shipped to the offices of the National Archives and Records Service.
The King Holiday campaign then escalated its efforts and was joined by the National Council of Churches as well as other organizations and celebrities from the entertainment field. In 1979, President Carter called upon Congress to pass the national King holiday, but the bill was defeated in the House of Representatives. Being forbidden access to the FBI files raised even more reservations in the minds of lawmakers. But, finally, political expedience won the day and in August 1983, the House of Representatives passed the King Holiday bill by a vote of 338 to 90.
When the bill reached the Senate, former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms filed suit in federal court to obtain the release of the sealed FBI files. Helms and other senators maintained that the Senate could not evaluate King's character nor cast an informed vote on the proposed Federal holiday without this crucial information. Once again U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. came to the defense of the King campaign and refused to release the sealed FBI files. So, despite the legitimate reservations of many senators, the Senate, in October 1983, passed the King Holiday bill by a vote of 78 to 22.
Within weeks, President Reagan signed the bill making the third Monday in January the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday. The campaign for state King holidays continued until finally only two states were without an official holiday: Arizona and New Hampshire. In 1992, in order to avoid a tourism boycott, Arizona enacted a King Holiday. New Hampshire, in 1991, replaced its Fast Day, which dated back to its years as a colony, with a Civil Rights Day to honor everyone who had worked for civil rights. But the King forces kept up their campaign until, in 1999, New Hampshire changed Civil Rights Day to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
The same tactics used to promote the King Holiday have been adopted by those campaigning against Columbus Day. This conflict represents another clash of cultures and, in this case, attacks on Columbus' character have also been employed. Author Jack Weatherford made this indictment against Columbus Day: "The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names. In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history."
Like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus' reputation has also been tarnished by accusations of having abetted slavery. Columbus Day is now described as a "slave-trader holiday" and it has been said: "As a national holiday, Columbus Day has become a state-supported act of hate speech." Incredibly, Columbus' venture in the New World has been likened to Hitler and the Holocaust. And demonstrators, who shout epithets at Italian-American marchers, continue to disrupt Columbus Day parades.
The anti-Columbus campaign wants the holiday changed to a celebration of all cultures and racial groups impacting America. Suggested names include Indigenous Peoples Day, Ethnic Diversity Day, Italian Achievement Day, Discoverers' Day and Pioneers' Day. Probably either Indigenous Peoples Day or Ethnic Diversity Day will be selected because the other suggestions imply a person or a specific group — Italians.
Based upon the success of the King holiday campaign, we can assume that Congress will eventually capitulate to the threats and disruptions by the anti-Columbus forces and agree to change the name of the holiday to something innocuous, something that couldn't possibly offend any person or any group. Although this would represent a victory for multiculturalism, a parade to honor "indigenous people" or "ethnic diversity" might not generate a lot of enthusiasm.
Like Columbus Day, Christmas is also under attack as a result of the increasing numbers of those professing other religions, Muslims being the fastest growing. This cultural clash might create a movement to have the Christmas holiday renamed something ambiguous like Festival Day. If that happens, another traditional holiday would be replaced with a newer and politically sanitized one. Festival Day does not signify any particular religion and would even placate a non-believer. And, based on the trends we've witnessed, resistance to the change might cause marches, demonstrations and the disruption of public events.
March 13, 2003
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com