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MLK Day name change by Mississippi city causes outrage

One line on Twitter about competing holidays prompts weekend of damage control

Thirty-one years after it was first celebrated as a federal holiday, this Monday officially became Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Biloxi, Mississippi — only after a social media firestorm that ignited over the weekend.

The backlash was created on Jan. 13 when Biloxi’s public affairs office posted one sentence to its Facebook and Twitter platforms. “Non-emergency municipal offices in Biloxi will be closed on Monday in observance of Great Americans Day,” the posts read.

After trending on Twitter, the posts were deleted in the early hours of the morning on Jan. 14.

That did exactly nothing to stop the deluge of tweets of outrage in response:

One person tweeted, “@CityofBiloxi It’s called Martin Luther King Day.”

Another tweet from well-known defense attorney C.J. Lawrence read, “Shame on Biloxi, MS for defacing the legacy of Dr. King’s Holiday by calling it “Great Americans Day” they Just All lives Mattered MLK!”

“A lot of people think we changed [the name] this year,” Biloxi’s public affairs manager Vincent Creel said.

According to the city of Biloxi, the posts referred to a three-decade-old city ordinance officially naming the holiday Great Americans Day.

“It was wrong,” said Biloxi city councilman Felix Gines, the city’s only black councilman. “I think the individual who initiated it meant for it to be the way it was.”

Gines believes that for 32 years the resolution was just overlooked, buried in city records until it was given life on social media.

“There are things that as you go on, you know, you just don’t memorize every resolution that’s passed throughout the city’s history,” Gines explained. “I was under the assumption that we had already [changed] it.

King’s birthday became a national holiday after President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in November 1983 proclaiming that the third Monday of every January be observed in his honor, beginning in 1986.

Following Reagan’s signature, the city of Biloxi decided in a resolution to declare an entire week, Jan. 8-15, 1984, as “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week.” The resolution also stated, “the Council of the City of Biloxi would like to continue to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other great Americans who have made contributions to the birth, growth and evolution of this country by creating a permanent holiday in their honor …”

In 1985 however, Great Americans Day falling on the third Monday of every January also became a legal holiday in Biloxi.

Interestingly, before it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day or even Great Americans Day, it was a holiday commemorating the general of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee.

Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19, has been a Mississippi holiday since the 1900s. Arkansas and Alabama also celebrate this day.

So Monday morning at a specially-called city council meeting, council members voted unanimously to approve the declaration of MLK Day. Basically, the council voted to change the ordinance that called the day Great Americans Day.

Citizens and community leaders packed the Biloxi City Council chambers. The council accepted several public comments before the vote. Many comments were critical and called for more diversity.

City officials say the celebration of King’s legacy has always taken precedence over Lee Day, with several events scheduled every year.

The city’s mayor, Andrew Gilich, wanted the city council to change city’s Code of Ordinances to reflect the official federal name of the holiday.

“In my opinion, that is the appropriate step to take, for the holiday to have the same name as the federal holiday,” Gilich said Friday in a statement on the city’s website.

“Of course, we’re doing damage control,” Gines said. “I mean, you know, nobody wants to be deemed as a racist.”

City officials say there was never any intention to discredit the holiday named for King; the post was made simply to inform the public of the closure of city offices.

“It was disheartening to see people across the country paint our city as racist,” Creel said.

Creel believes the climate of the nation, driven by claims of racial disparities, is what intensified the Twitterstorm.

Just months ago, eyes turned to Mississippi when state leaders decided to keep the flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem. Controversy surrounding the Mississippi flag started after nine people were murdered in a Charleston, South Carolina, church.

The divisive symbol of the Confederacy was a focal point in the case that led to the conviction of white supremacist Dylann Roof for the mass murder.

“Unfortunately stuff from our past keeps popping up,” Creel said.

On Jan 14, in an attempt to right a wrong, city leaders scheduled the special meeting “to get in line with federal government observing Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday,” according to Gines.

“This city’s longstanding support of our annual MLK celebrations speaks volumes about our support for this holiday. In fact, we’ve always celebrated this day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” Gilich said.

The MLK Day parade, which started after the council meeting convened, is one of 12 events Biloxi is promoting in a monthlong celebration honoring King.