Baltimore is missing the point of Columbus day

Baltimore’s City Council is deciding whether to strip Christopher Columbus of his annual holiday -- and rename the day “Indigenous Peoples’ and Italian-Americans’ Day.” (Baltimore Sun video)

I write to express the strong opposition of the National Christopher Columbus Association to City Councilman Brandon Scott's proposed legislation to designate the second Monday of October — the federal Columbus Day holiday — as "Indigenous Peoples and Italian-Americans Day." ("City Council moves to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples and Italian-Americans Day," Nov. 24.)

The proposal reflects an unfortunate misunderstanding of the purpose of the holiday, and I invite the City Council to consider carefully the historical background of the Columbus holiday and the declaration of the members of Congress who voted to establish it in law.


The official Senate committee report of June 21, 1968 made their purpose abundantly clear: the holiday would be "an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willingness to face with confidence the imponderables of an unknown tomorrow. It is also the committee's judgment that the observance of Columbus Day is an appropriate means of recognizing the United States as a 'nation of immigrants' as we were described by the late President Kennedy."

While the creation of the holiday was strongly supported by the Italian-American community, reflected in the support of Senators John Pastore of Rhode Island and Peter Rodino of New Jersey, it was never intended to be solely a holiday for a single ethnic group. As the senators saw it, "By commemorating the voyage of Columbus to the New World, we would be honoring the courage and determination which enabled generation after generation of immigrants from every nation to broaden their horizons in search of new hopes and renewed affirmation of freedom."

These sentiments have been reiterated by every American president during the intervening years. In 1998, President Bill Clinton's statement was a concise endorsement of the intent of Congress: "Today our Nation stands on the threshold of a new millennium, an uncharted time of great challenge and opportunity. To fulfill the promise of this new era, we must be adventurous, willing to leave known shores, and eager to embrace change. To find inspiration for this momentous journey, we need only look to the example of Christopher Columbus, who helped usher in a similar Age of Discovery more than 500 years ago ... As we enter a new era, let us embrace Columbus' spirit of discovery and embrace as well the great diversity of cultures, religions and ethnic traditions that we enjoy because so many have followed his course to this great land."

This year, President Barack Obama added his support to this conception of Columbus Day when he declared that "The spirit of exploration that Columbus embodied was sustained by all who would follow him westward, driving a desire to continue expanding our understanding of the world." He added, "As we mark this rich history, we must also acknowledge the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers." And he added: "We have made great progress together in recent years, and we will keep striving to maintain strong nation-to-nation relationships, strengthen tribal sovereignty, and help all our communities thrive."

President Obama concluded by describing the spirit in which all Americans should mark Columbus Day:

"More than five centuries ago, one journey changed the trajectory of our world — and today we recognize the spirit that Christopher Columbus' legacy inspired. As we reflect on the adventurers throughout history who charted new courses and sought new heights, let us remember the communities who suffered, and let us pay tribute to our heritage and embrace the multiculturalism that defines the American experience."

The city of Baltimore should embrace President Obama's central message: that Columbus Day is an opportunity for all Americans to celebrate both the "spirit of exploration" that Columbus embodied and which has become a hallmark of America, and celebrate as well the hard-won success that we have had over the past 500 years in the often difficult process of becoming one people.

Mr. Scott's proposed legislation would move Baltimore in exactly the opposite direction, dividing us into ethnic subgroups, rather than offering a vision of America that includes us all behind a set of common ideals. President Obama's theme of unity, not division, should guide Baltimore in its actions on this subject.


James P. McCusker

The writer is president of the National Christopher Columbus Association.