by Catherine Arjet
On January 13th, the city of Biloxi’s Twitter account sent out what, at first glance, seemed to be a boring tweet reminding everyone of an upcoming bank holiday. The, now deleted, tweet read: “Non-emergency municipal offices in Biloxi will be closed on Monday in observance of Great Americans Day.”
This would be just another reminder of an inconsequential holiday if it were not for the fact that the Monday referred to in the tweet was Martin Luther King, Jr Day. The tweet was immediately picked up by news outlets like the Huffington Post as well as on Twitter and other social media sites and on that Monday — MLK Day — the Biloxi city council unanimously voted to rename the holiday Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
A Biloxi city ordinance created “Great Americans Day” in 1985; however, the rest of Mississippi, at least legally and technically, still celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and Robert E. Lee’s on the third Monday in January. These celebrations are fundamentally at odds. We cannot condone Lee’s actions — those of trying to leave America to found a new country, which allowed slavery — while also celebrating King’s. The two men led completely opposite lives. One violently fought for racial oppression, while the other used non-violent resistance in an attempt to begin to heal racial wrongs.
Lee’s birth obviously predates King’s so in order to celebrate King’s instead of Lee’s lawmakers had to replace Lee day with MLK Day. However, instead of doing this, Biloxi created “Great Americans Day”, while the state of Mississippi celebrates both. While changing the holiday might have been something that, sadly, would not have gained popular support in 1983 when MLK Day became a federal holiday, by 2017 this dual celebration is something that seems outdated and backward. There is no reason for all Mississippi cities, or even the state itself, not to officially make the third Monday in January MLK Day — and only MLK Day.
This seems to be Mississippi’s way of doing things. Instead of taking action to change old racist laws, they pretend the law (or in this case, holiday) doesn’t exist. It is a way to pretend we’re moving forward but to not actually change anything and keep the racists happy. However, in this case, Biloxi did actually move forward, which proves how much can happen if we demand change from elected officials.
Sure, it isn’t a huge deal — it’s just a name change — but symbolically it means a lot. So today I’m calling on you to continue to make change happen, like the change we saw in Biloxi last week. Call out racist — or sexist, or homophobic, or any other type of bigoted — laws and policies. Demand change from your elected officials. Don’t let Mississippi (or anywhere else for that matter) keep getting away with sweeping old bigoted practices under the rug instead of actively disavowing them. You alone might not change the world, but you can try to help change your corner of it.