On the evening of January 13 last year, a routine tweet about municipal office closures became a hot-button issue. In a now-deleted post, the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, stated of MLK Day: "Non-emergency municipal offices in Biloxi will be closed on Monday in observance of Great Americans Day."
Great Americans Day? It’s an open secret that there are still places in the South that don't appreciate being forced to celebrate what they often deride as “Coon Day”, but seeing it so boldly erased was still a shock to me.
My reaction was swift. I tweeted out a call for a boycott of the city, which went viral, and asked people to let the City of Biloxi hear from them, as well. One person even suggested a protest march for that Monday. The majority of the replies, however, scolded the city for appearing to have made an effort to eclipse the black Civil Rights Leader, and opined that the day properly belonged to MLK.
The official responses were varied in tone, and in effectiveness. The city’s account tried to assure people that they were still honoring Dr. King. I didn’t think they understood exactly how demeaning the slight felt, to people of color — or their allies. #Biloxi was soon a nationwide trending topic on Twitter, having caught the attention of figures like Chris Hayes and Andrew Kaczynsky.
The Mayor of Biloxi, Andrew “Fofo” Gilich, sensing the sensitivity of the situation, released a statement late that very night. On a Friday. Before a 3-day weekend.
I have to admit, that impressed me.
He said he’d called upon the City Council to set a meeting for the following Monday — the very day of the holiday in question — in order to change the name. He was quoted as saying that he had always looked upon the day as MLK Day.
Meanwhile, the city’s Public Affairs Manager, Vincent Creel, was quoted in The Huffington Post as saying; “For whatever reason, the state couldn’t bring itself to just say ‘Martin Luther King Jr. Day." Of the state’s inclusion of Lee in the holiday, Creel said: “Somewhere along the lines, that evolved into ‘Great Americans Day,’ unfortunately. And yes, I did say ‘unfortunately.’”
The city’s Public Affairs office was responsible for posting the announcements on social media, so at best, this was a lame effort to deflect blame.
None of that impressed me one bit.
However, despite attempts to locate any such declaration by the Mississippi Legislature, multiple news sources — from The Huffington Post, to the Jackson Free Press — were unable to verify that it exists.
The name “Great Americans Day” was eventually traced back to the Biloxi City Council. As clear as Mayor Gillich may have been about what the day should be called, the City Council had also left no doubts, with their “Ordinance To Amend §13A-2-2 Of The Biloxi Code Of Ordinances To Add A Holiday Commemorating The Contributions Of Certain Great Americans To Our Country” which was done on December 31, 1985.
When I read it, a couple of things became very clear to me. With slightly over two weeks left before the new federal holiday would take effect, there was a rush to try to accommodate both sides of a prickly issue. Black people were looking to the states — especially the Southern states, to show the proper deference to their slain leader — while white people were just beginning their attempts to cloak racism behind the veil of “Heritage”. (It was becoming much less popular then to be open about one's racist views.)
So, after a not-so-subtle reminder to any of those who may be upset by the change (read: black people) that MLK was a man who advocated peace, the city tried to take the position that there are just so many Great Americans, how could anyone possibly narrow it down to just ONE man?
There was (and still is) a Mississippi state holiday to mark the Birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It is on the third Monday in January. However, the Biloxi City Council did not specifically mention any desire to combine the two — such as when the Birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were joined into one “Presidents’ Day.” They only said that they:
… Would like to continue to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other great Americans who have made important contributions to the birth, growth, and evolution of this country by creating a permanent holiday in their honor, with additions to the list of Americans so honored to be added by Resolution…
Now, remember, it’s 1985. Less than 20 years had passed since the South had finally been allowed us to eat at the same lunch counters as white people, to sit anywhere we’d like to on public transportation, and to attend the same schools as whites. There is one day that was set aside to honor one of the Leaders who had brought us so very far, and even that was too much for some people to accept.
On Saturday, January 14, 2017, there was a page added to the city’s website. In reference to the 1985 vote, it claims that “this change, led by an African-American member of the City Council, was intended to comply with conflicting state and federal laws that gave different names to the holiday, while emphasizing that Biloxi would celebrate the day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which it has done ever since.”
This is mostly not true, and it is also a perfect example of a common attempt to make something sound less odious.
The wording of the Ordinance does not mention conflicting names/holidays, nor does it emphasize celebrating the day as MLK Day. Even if it was actually a black person who proposed the change, the possibility that they were asked to do so in order to improve the "optics" of downplaying MLK Day cannot be overstated.
To say that the day has always been celebrated as MLK Day, in their own response to a controversy over the city doing the exact opposite of that the day before, and just two months after a racist man was elected President by emboldening, stoking and exploiting "quiet" racism, brings one question to mind. Exactly how does a name with 30 years' of dust on it, suddenly end up on your social media accounts?
For me, the only possible answer is this: Someone had been carrying that name around in their pocket, just waiting for a time when the moment felt ripe.
I must give the city full credit for what came next: At the hastily called meeting on that Monday, the Biloxi City Council voted unanimously in favor of officially re-naming the holiday the “Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Mayor Gilich is still making good faith efforts to understand the black community. In April of 2017, he ordered that the Stars & Stripes be the only flag flown over city offices. This effectively keeps the Confederate Battle Flag from having any sort of official legitimacy from the city of Biloxi, despite being incorporated into the state flag. (We’ll work on that whole “Eight Flags” thing another time.)
The state of Mississippi still celebrates Robert E. Lee Day — but earlier this week, Senate Representative Kabir Karriem proposed a bill that would move Lee’s state holiday to his actual birthday, which is on January 19th.
As he said: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Editor's Note: This op-ed does not reflect the views of BDG Media and is part of a larger, feminist discourse on today's political climate.