Friday, October 10, 2003 - Tomorrow the Sons of Italy (among others) will stage their annual Columbus Day Parade and, of course, tomorrow the American Indian Movement (among others) will stage their annual protest.
The Native Americans say they don't mind a celebration of American history or Italian heritage, but they're offended by a parade to honor a man who enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered their ancestors.
The Italian-Americans say it's not fair to castigate Christopher Columbus because he isn't the only historical figure with skeletons in his closet. They just want to celebrate their culture, and they're offended that protesters show up every year to ruin their parade.
The good news is that neither the city, state nor federal government is trying to stop the organizers from having the parade or the protesters from having their counter-demonstration. However, Colorado should seriously consider renaming this holiday.
The more we learn about Columbus, the less worthy he is of this type of official recognition. There's no question that Columbus is an important part of our national history. He made the voyage that marked the beginning of sustained contact between Europe and the New World, and for that he should be included in our textbooks.
And it's fair to argue that we shouldn't judge historical figures by modern-day standards. Even leaders for whom we've built monuments (e.g., George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) owned slaves or suspended habeas corpus and incarcerated thousands without trials. But on balance, society believes these were statesmen who did more good than bad.
Columbus, on the other hand, is a bit different. Even by the standards of his own time, he wasn't regarded as a good or noble person. In fact, during his third voyage to the New World, he was arrested and taken back to Spain in chains over allegations of brutality, among other charges.
As a general rule, we give our official holidays names like Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. is the only other individual who has an official state holiday named after him. Is Columbus really worthy of this state honor?
So that's the important question this weekend while the marchers march and the protesters protest. It's one thing if a group of citizens chooses to celebrate the accomplishments of Columbus, but it's quite another thing when the state singles him out for official praise.
It's one thing if the KKK exercises its First Amendment right to stage a march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Ill., celebrating Adolf Hitler as a great man. But it would be an entirely different thing if the state of Illinois had an official holiday named after Hitler.
Or look at the controversy over the Confederate flag in the South. I don't doubt that the flag is an important symbol of Southern heritage, but I also know that the KKK co-opted that symbol and used it along with white hoods and burning crosses to intimidate African-Americans.
So it's one thing if a South Carolina resident wants to fly the Stars and Bars off his back bumper. It's another thing if the state puts a Confederate flag on its capitol building.
When it comes to building monuments and establishing holidays, Colorado must take great care in making these choices. If we discover that we're heaping official praise on a man who doesn't deserve it, then we should correct that mistake.
I don't know what the new name should be, but we should try to find something more suitable.
Former Denver Bronco Reggie Rivers
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