Let’s reimagine Columbus Day: From the start, and for understandable reasons, the holiday has been deeply divisive among Italian Americans
In recent years the fall arrival of Columbus Day has often yielded a harvest of rage over the explorer’s brutal imperialism. Several large cities have even chosen to call the second Monday of October “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
But this highly charged reaction to a barely observed holiday is nothing new. Considering Columbus Day’s fractious history in the United States — its origins included bloody fights among Italian Americans themselves — it’s time to re-imagine the holiday.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934, the result of decades of political jockeying to buy favor with the Italian-American voting bloc. But FDR’s timing, as the heavy veil of fascism hung over Europe, meant that protests and bloody confrontation would mar even the first October celebrations, pitting Italian-American fascist sympathizers against a smaller but belligerent coalition of anti-fascist protesters.
All of the pro-fascist organizations in America, including the Columbus Day League, the Order Sons of Italy (the “transmission belt” of fascism, according to one anti-fascist), and the Italian Historical Society had supported making Columbus Day a federal holiday — as Mussolini had done in Italy. Also lobbying Roosevelt was Generoso Pope, publisher of Il Progresso, the largest Italian-American newspaper in the country. Pope was a fawning admirer of the fascist dictator.
For Mussolini, Columbus Day represented another opportunity to rouse the citizenry in celebration of what he declared the resurrection of the glories of the Roman Empire. Fascist supporters championing Columbus Day in America mirrored Il Duce’s nationalism: They wanted grand celebrations and parades that heralded the greatness of Italy and the Italian people.
Italian-American anti-fascist leaders, such as Luigi Antonini of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, also supported the creation of a holiday. But the anti-fascists saw Columbus Day as an opportunity to better recognize Italian Americans as part of mainstream American society, a group worthy of its own day.
And so, each year the crowds, and confrontations, grew with both sides slugging out their ideological differences. Gov. Herbert Lehman presided over a ceremony at New York’s Columbus Circle in 1937, organized by Pope, where more than five thousand people gathered with many of them shouting “fascisti!” When Italy’s fascist anthem, the Giovanezza, played, the massive crowd raised arms in the famous salute.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spent the day racing between the official ceremony, which he detested but couldn’t avoid because of its popularity with the electorate, and a non-fascist one organized by his protégé, Rep. Vito Marcantonio. The second gathering supported “the preservation and extension of democratic rights and civil liberties.” Within the Italian-American community a deep division existed over Mussolini, who the majority considered a blessing and the minority, a scourge. By 1938, Pope’s pro-fascist Columbus Day events attracted over 35,000 people.
If Roosevelt originally had hoped that the holiday would provide a future electoral jolt, during World War II he chose, like the anti-fascists, to use the date to emphasize the mainstream inclusion of the Italian-American population. War bond purchases were typically issued on Columbus Day, and in his administration’s most salient move, FDR lifted the designation of Italian-American enemy alien status on October 12, 1942. (The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor the prior year, Roosevelt had issued Proclamation 2527, which rendered the country’s 600,000 unnaturalized Italians enemy aliens.)
With its historic layers of pure politics, embarrassing filling of fascist pride and contemporary icing of Native-American protest, Columbus Day has had its share of lumps in the batter. And unlike other holidays, it has no traditional Italian sweet made in its honor, perhaps all the more reason why it often passes by many Italian Americans unnoticed.
Yet Oct. 12 could gain the stature it deserves — if it championed the message of a mass migration that resulted in over 5 million Italians coming to America, and over 17 million claiming Italian-American heritage today. Instead of celebrating the “discovery” of America, or attempting to curry favor with an ethnic group, or indulging in an overdose of ethnic pride, the day can herald the country’s grand and still-tested ideal of accepting and integrating all of its members. Certainly the century-long struggle of Italian Americans to combat bigotry and gain acceptance into mainstream life provides an instructive lesson to our newest immigrants.
Columbus Day renamed Immigrant Day. Now that would be a holiday worth remembering.
Laurino is the author of “The Italian Americans: A History” and “Were You Always an Italian? ”
“It was a pleasure to collaborate and share historical facts about my Grandfather, Generoso Pope Sr., with Maria Laurino on her book and the accompanying PBS documentary “The Italian Americans”.” – Paul David Pope