Monday, October 11, 2021

One Nation

 Today is Columbus Day in the United States, nominally celebrating Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas.  The first national Columbus Day was proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 for the 400th anniversary; one of the motivations for the national proclamation was the unrest following the mob lynching of eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans the previous year. The informal theme of the celebration was an affirmation that we were one nation. There were lots of different activities throughout the country, but the most lasting was the public school flag ceremony, in which students throughout the land recited a pledge written for the occasion by Francis Bellamy. Bellamy's version of the Pledge of the Allegiance was:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The national holiday was a one-time thing, but it was popular, and echoes of it continued to be celebrated by cities and states, despite repeated attacks by anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic nativist groups. In 1934, as a result of lobbying by Italian-Americans and the Knights of Columbus, President Roosevelt declared it a holiday again. It only became a recurring federal holiday in 1968 and was moved in 1971 to the second Monday in October. Its star has declined since about the 1990s. The holiday was never primarily about Columbus himself, and, technically, it's still supposed to be a celebration of immigrants, but I suppose Italian Americans are no longer regarded as a paradigmatic immigrant group able to stand for all the others, and it's perhaps inevitable that the holiday struggles to survive in a period in which holidays and commemorations of all kinds are often taken in very literalistic terms.