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Commentary :: Race
Memorial Equality: Should a Man Who Led in the Struggle Against Racial Inequality be as Equally Celebrated as a Man Who Led in Europe’s Genocidal Conquest of the “Americas”?
13 Jan 2005
If I were to sum up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Christopher Columbus in a simple George W-style sentence, I'd use the word “good” to describe the former and “evil” to describe the latter. Despite the exhaustive historical record that exposes the real Columbus as a brutal slave-driving mercenary, he receives pretty much the same amount of federal recognition and commemoration as Dr. King, the slain civil rights icon whose oratory skills backed by a deep commitment to peacefully overcoming injustice made him a powerful figure for change. The fact that there are even holidays for both Columbus and Dr. King is a perfect example of the inane and contradictory message the United States sends about it’s national identity.
mlkcolum.jpg
Memorial Equality
If I were to sum up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Christopher Columbus in a simple George W-style sentence, I'd use the word “good” to describe the former and “evil” to describe the latter. Despite the exhaustive historical record that exposes the real Columbus as a brutal slave-driving mercenary, he receives pretty much the same amount of federal recognition and commemoration as Dr. King, the slain civil rights icon whose oratory skills backed by a deep commitment to peacefully overcoming injustice made him a powerful figure for change. The fact that there are even holidays for both Columbus and Dr. King is a perfect example of the inane and contradictory message the United States sends about it’s national identity.

If MLK Jr. Day is seen as an acceptance of wrongdoing by the U.S. government to African Americans (Not to suggest that the government isn’t still guilty wrongdoing in the area of inequality) then Columbus Day can be seen as a slap in the face to indigenous “Americans” whose ancestors suffered in the same way the Native islanders suffered following the wrath of the Columbus “discovery”. The native Arawaks on the island of Haiti, for example, were conquered and forced to supply gold, food, and women for sexual enslavement by Columbus and his men who severed the noses, ears, and hands of anyone who resisted. According to the writings of Columbus’s son Ferdinand, when the Natives started countering back non-violently in the way of refusing to plant food and mine for gold, his father declared all-out war using cannons and vicious dogs as part of his arsenal of weaponry. As James W. Loewen pointed out in his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, in 1493 when Columbus arrived in Haiti the estimated population of Arawaks was somewhere between 3 million and 8 million, and just fifty years later a census showed the approximate native population at mere 12,000.

Columbus Day is one example of America’s celebration of figures who took big roles in unleashing the genocidal rape and pillage endured by Natives just as on Thanksgiving Day and with the 20-dollar bill which proudly features the “Trail of Tears” architect Andrew Jackson. Too many Americans are either ignorant or indifferent to the truth about history. Even today with all the information available the happier version of American history still prevails despite its inaccuracy. The whitewashing begins early around kindergarten and first grade when students learn about how Columbus was a brave explorer who sought to prove to everyone that the world wasn’t flat. (The “fact” that most people in Spain at the time thought the earth was flat is yet another historical misconception that has since surfaced over the years.) From there kids learn of how the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and befriended the Indians and after helping one another out they then all got together with for a big turkey dinner. I can recall being in a Thanksgiving play in my kindergarten class where I, playing Squanto, sang a song holding hands with another classmate dressed as a Pilgrim. The whole story or even the real story is never told by teachers who simply go by the textbook and even when older students are given slight glimpses of truth their always glazed over and never expressed in such a context that might give light to the contradictory way America commemorates historical figures. For instance, it wouldn’t be good for teachers to point out that the two men who owned the most slaves in their time and the man that “freed the slaves” are all memorialized next to one another on the same mountain. That might naturally lead to kids asking questions or something.

It can be said that the actions and experiences of Dr. Martin Luther King and Christopher Columbus in many ways exemplify both the best and worst ways in which religious faith has been used. For Dr. King, who was a Reverend and a Christian leader, faith played an essential role in what he accomplished. When his daughter, the Reverend Bernice A. King spoke at Bunker Hill Community College last spring she talked about how she always rejected the term “civil rights” to describe the struggle her father led and instead saw it as struggle of “divine faith”, which she claimed was also how her father saw things. Faith-based organizations and religious leaders throughout history to present-day have always been at the forefront of struggles against poverty, war, and inequality. Dr. King certainly embodied that spirit. Columbus, on the other hand, embodied the worst attributes of organized religious power as he brutally forced Christianity on the Native people he conquered and perverted religious doctrine to justify his terrible misdeeds. His son Ferdinand in the text mentioned above also wrote that “with God’s aid” his father “gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.” While faith and racial equality ran parallel in Dr. King’s view, religious and racial superiority were at the root of how Columbus saw things.

One of the only interesting moments in the vice-presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney last October was when Edwards brought up Cheney’s congressional record from his time in House of Representatives. He pointed out, among other things, how our cold-blooded V.P. actually voted against making MLK Jr. Day a holiday. He, along with others like Senator Jesse Helms, were almost successful in influencing then President Reagan into taking their position on the matter and for a while Reagan did oppose the idea. Eventually, Reagan took the more politically expedient path and with great reluctance signed a bill making it a national holiday in 1983. (It’s ironic that Reagan was the one who signed the day into law given the antipathy to civil rights issues by his administration.) It would be interesting to go back and ask Cheney what he thought about Columbus Day since much of the opposition to MLK Jr. Day was supposedly predicated on uncorroborated and manipulated evidence showing Dr. King’s possible Communist Party association and sexual promiscuity. If that’s all it takes to keep a figure like Dr. King from being memorialized with a national holiday than one would think that all the various historical information showing the atrocities that Columbus committed would make people like Cheney oppose his holiday too. It’s safe to say though, that Cheney very much supports the idea of Columbus Day, for Columbus’s exploits embody the spirit of expanding wealth and power through conquest that Cheney is definitely down with.

In his essay, “Columbus and Western Civilization”, historian Howard Zinn quotes Chauncey DePew, a rich Vanderbilt lobbyist, as saying during a speech at a Columbus Day “quadricentennial” celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1892 that commemorating Columbus “marks the wealth and the civilization of a great people...it marks the things that belong to their comfort and their ease, their pleasure and their luxuries...and their power.” If one looks at it the way DePew did, it might be fair to suggest that the spirit of Columbus has far more precedence in the actions and ideology of America’s powerful elites than the spirit of Dr. King does. The spirit of Dr. King has way more precedence in the actions of those who get in the way of those in power. It is very much true that those Americans at the “bottom” who resisted racial and economic inequality forced upon them by those at the “top” have played and still do play a huge role in forming America’s national character. Unfortunately the spirit of greed and superiority that drives the actions of those in power plays a huge role as well. Should America not celebrate Columbus Day because we think the idea of using brutal military force to conquer a foreign land, impose our “values”, and exploit the country’s natural resources is a bad idea? Maybe until the spirit of Columbus isn’t so prevalent in the actions committed on behalf of this country Columbus Day should still be celebrated along with MLK Jr. Day despite the contradictory message that may send. The truth is the United States is a land of extreme contradictions, epitomizing the use of George Orwell’s famous lexicon of “double-speak”. Although the spirit of Dr. King is important and should be celebrated, until it becomes powerful enough to wash out the spirit of Columbus that still pervades America’s domestic and foreign policy, maybe there isn’t any reason why he shouldn’t be celebrated too. Either way, too many Americans already do view the two holidays in an equal light; both are equally seen as days off from work or school and as times where there are big sales at department stores.
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Re: Memorial Equality: Should a Man Who Led in the Struggle Against Racial Inequality be as Equally Celebrated as a Man Who Led in Europe’s Genocidal Conquest of the “Americas”?
20 Jan 2005
Excellent opinion piece. In many Latin American countries, we've officially changed the holiday from Columbus Day to Dia de la Raza, to recognize that the Spanish conquest left a trail of blood. Then again, Latin America gained its independence from Spain. Native Americans all still subjected to European ethnocentrism.
Re: Memorial Equality: Should a Man Who Led in the Struggle Against Racial Inequality be as Equally Celebrated as a Man Who Led in Europe’s Genocidal Conquest of the “Americas”?
21 Jan 2005
while I agree with just about everything you say, I do not think you can just write off Columbus as being "evil." He doesn't deserve a national holiday (this has never made sense to me, as he was Italian and the Vikings got closer to America than he did).

Even so, while his atrocities were terrible, and the false history taught to America's schoolchildren is an atrocity in of itself, Columbus' importance cannot be denied. His story should be told objectively, for what it was: a horrid combination of progress and terror. It's useless to deny that the spirit of exploration Columbus embodied is responsible, for better or for worse, for a great deal of human progress. While Eurocentrists overemphasize this fact and use it as an excuse for exploitation, some are just as guilty of overemphasizing the notion of the "noble savage."

Brutality, war, conquest and slaughter in the name of god and government were not strictly European traditions; cannibalism, genocide and human sacrifice were not common practice in all native tribes, but they certainly took place. Warfare and power struggles, after all, are common to all humans, not just Europeans.

While it is unknown how the native civilizations of the Americas would have progressed and evolved, we cannot change history. Columbus and those who followed him were responsible for horrible crimes against humanity, but they also brought good things; the scientific and technological developments of the Indo-European world, and the art, literature, music and philosophy that laid the foundations for democracy and the promotion of human liberty and equality.

Of course, these technological and philosophical developments have been used for many ill purposes; this has been happening since humans picked up rocks and used them as weapons. But they also allow us to, say, use computers to share ideas with the entire world, or use reason and diplomacy to avoid warfare and inequality.

Whether or not you call this progress, it's what we have to work with. While we must always keep in mind the evil that has come of it, we must focus on fostering the good things, or they will never grow.

That is why absolutism is extremely dangerous. Using words such as "evil" to describe not only Columbus, but the spirit of exploration he embodied is an incomplete generalization, and a bit hypocritical when you're typing it on a computer.

Sorry for nitpicking, as I do agree with you for the most part, but we cannot dismiss the good things brought about by European civilization, just as we can't forget the good things brought about by Native American civilization.

Sadly, Columbus (and especially his followers) were blinded by greed and missed a great chance to bring true progress to humanity; if they had reconciled the technology and philosophy of the West with the ideals of the natives, especially those regarding environmental responsibility and principles of ownership, they could have made great philosophical and civic gains.

It is our responsibility to learn from these mistakes, and now that the world has become increasingly globalized there are endless opportunities to do so. So, perhaps we should combine Columbus day and Martin Luther King day.

Celebrate the day as a constant reminder that progress and exploration can bring many great things, but they must always be kept in check by humility and good will. King reconciled the Indo-European ideals of Christianity and democracy with ideals of humility and responsibility, something Columbus -- and, unfortunately, most politicians today -- failed to do.