Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Since the 1980s, the Mississippi city has officially celebrated “Great Americans Day,” not MLK Day. This year, that changes—and the backstory is more complex than it first appears.
This year, for the first time, Biloxi, Mississippi, will officially celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For decades, the city has held concerts, parades, and parties for the civil rights leader; they’ve inscribed his name on streets and buildings, too. But for years, a little-known city ordinance deemed the third Monday in January not a holiday for King, but the vaguer “Great Americans Day”—a name that seems to scream the thing it doesn’t say.
Last year, the technicality came to light when a fastidious official posted a routine tweet about holiday hours: “Non-emergency municipal offices in Biloxi will be closed Monday for Great Americans Day.” It was a simple sentence, said Vincent Creel, the city’s public affairs manager, written using the language recorded in city literature. The unidentified official didn’t mean to offend, Creel said, and certainly did not expect national backlash. The tweet was promptly deleted.
But in a city that was the site of a deadly riot in 1959 over beach integration, and in a Southern state famous for nesting Confederate regalia within its state flag, names matter. The national pressure compelled the city council to reexamine the arcane law, and change it.
Since its inception, MLK Day has been controversial. Ronald Reagan first proclaimed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday would become a federal holiday in 1983, 15 years after the civil rights leader’s assassination. By 1986, the holiday took national effect, but it would be more than a decade before all 50 states recognized the holiday.
Arizona adopted and then swiftly revoked Martin Luther King Day in 1987, sparking protests across the state. Not until 1992 did it reinstate the holiday, based on pressure from business interests, the NFL, and local activists. New Hampshire was the last state to officially recognize MLK Day as a paid state holiday, in 1999.
And in several other states, the January holiday has been caught up in politics over whose legacy, exactly, is being honored. It wasn’t until 2000 that Virginia stopped celebrating a hybrid Lee-Jackson-King Day (for confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who also had January birthdays). That same year, South Carolina stopped allowing state employees to “choose between MLK Day or three other Confederate holidays,” and Utah renamed its conspicuously King-free “Human Rights Day.”
Mississippi is one of three states that still hasn’t come around completely. Since 1983, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas have agreed to spend the third Monday in January memorializing King—but the reverend must share the honor with Robert E. Lee.
But as activists, historians, and members of Biloxi’s current city administration remember it, the idea behind ”Great Americans Day” is not what it appears. In fact, they say, the city chose its name as a countermeasure to the state’s decision to honor Lee alongside King. Biloxi’s old name for the holiday might look like a slight, but that’s not how it began.
Great Americans Day was first proposed by William F. Stallworth, an African American councilman who joined the Biloxi City Council in 1983. In the years between Reagan’s announcement and the date the holiday would take effect, the discrepancy between national, state, and city-level policy began to cause conflict among Biloxi’s council. They were happy to celebrate King, unanimously voting to devote a whole week to him in 1984, but they were worried about defying the state-sanctioned celebration of Robert E. Lee by codifying a conflicting holiday locally.
“The long-time, wrong-headed obsession with the Confederacy in the South was in play in 1985, as there are recognized holidays ‘celebrating’ General Robert E. Lee (who to my knowledge never set foot in Biloxi),” Biloxi resident and civil-rights activist Gilbert Mason said in an email. As Biloxi’s lone African American city councilman at the time, Stallworth wasn’t able to rally his peers in support of celebrating King alone.
“Stallworth first pushed to make the Martin Luther King Day Jr. holiday a date, but he had fellow council members who weren’t going to do it,” said Felix Gines, who serves today as the only African American on Biloxi’s city council. “He didn’t have the votes.”
The idea of eclipsing Lee’s name—as symbolic as stripping the statues of his body that pepper the South—proved too divisive. But “Stallworth did not want to see a holiday proclaimed bearing both the name Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee,” said Creel.
To compromise, Stallworth renamed it “Great Americans Day.”
A designation like this would presumably allow individuals to celebrate either King or Lee—or anyone else—without specifying whom. “The Council of the City of Biloxi 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,” the ordinance read. “With additions to the list of Americans so honored to be added by Resolution.” It passed in 1985.
It was far from a perfect compromise. Bundling MLK and Lee under the blanket term “Great” blurs King’s individual contributions, and elevates Lee’s. It conflates a man who fought for freedom and equality with one who bled to keep slavery alive. But at the time, Gines says, it was the one way Biloxi’s city council could preserve MLK’s memory without sparring with the state.
Gines, 52, and a lifelong Biloxi resident, also insists that the title has always been de jure, but not de facto. He has only heard Robert E. Lee’s birthday invoked in “sarcastic undertones,” and says that “Great Americans Day” was never used.
Most of the city council members and Mayor Andrew Gilich himself claim not to have been aware of the city code designating Great Americans—“As far as I’m concerned, it’s called ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day,’” Mayor Gilich later wrote on the city’s official Facebook page—but the Twitter shame campaign certainly opened their eyes.
For decades, Gines says, the city council has waited to pass progressive measures like this. “They didn’t feel we were ready. For some reason, as I was growing up, people would say, ‘Why are you pushing that? We’re not ready. It takes time,’” recalled Gines. “But as Dr. King says, ‘When will the right time ever come?’ I was fortunate enough to be close enough to see a little bit of it in our city.”
Biloxi has fought back against what they see as other racist state-level symbolism in recent years. Creel says the city refuses to fly the Mississippi state flag at the Biloxi courthouse because its top left corner bears a Confederate flag in miniature. “Of course, looking at the council now, you only have one African American on the council, which is me,” Gines noted. “But the good thing about it now is that I have six other progressive individuals who are there who think about the future, so to speak.”
In a speech for Oberlin College students in February 1957, King told the crowd to stop waiting and start acting: “The time is always right to do what’s right.” Almost 60 years later, on January 16, 2017, the Biloxi City council convened a special meeting. It voted unanimously to change Stallworth’s holiday to the nationally recognized “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”
Usually, it’s the winners who write the history books; those who compelled change who are memorialized with fanfare and parades. But while the Confederacy lost, its legacy is still honored publicly in Mississippi. This year, Gines says, Biloxi has reaffirmed what it now chooses to celebrate—and has chosen, for decades: Martin Luther King Jr., a great American.