Earlier today I walked into my office and found a lovely little gift basket of chocolates, courtesy of our department’s wonderful undergraduate teaching assistants. “Happy May Day!” read the card.
Of course, given the way that May Day is celebrated in most of the world, this should prompt me not only to endorphin- and Toblerone-fueled good feelings about how lucky we are to have our TAs, but to evaluate my participation in a system of labor in which younger, lesser-skilled workers are paid relatively low wages for work that I’d sometimes prefer to avoid.
Fortunately, this is the United States of America, and May 1st has nothing to do with the exploitation and alienation of the proletariat. No, according to the U.S. Code, today is “Loyalty Day”:
Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.
Not surprisingly, the origins of this holiday (of which, I’ll admit, I was totally unaware until goofing around on Wikipedia last night — and I love obscure holidays) are rooted in a certain, rather narrow vision of “American freedom.”
It seems to have originated in the nativistic “Americanization” movement that, during the peak of immigration before and after 1900, questioned the loyalties and assimilation of “hyphenated-Americans.” The first “Americanization Day” was held on July 4, 1915 (here’s a nice exhibit of Americanization documents from the era of WWI hosted by the New York State Archives) and a little research suggests that other states held similar occasions at other times of the year. (I found one reference to an Americanization Day in October 1919 in Indiana’s public schools.)
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) give 1921 as the first year that May 1 was relabeled “Americanization Day” — the better to combat radicals’ use of the day as a workers’ holiday. For example, the New York Times reported that a thousand people went to Carnegie Hall that evening for a “patriotic mass meeting” featuring state senator Clayton Lusk, chairman of a committee set up two years after the Bolshevik Revolution to investigate “seditious activities” by anarchist, socialist, and other radical groups. “There is on foot in this country today,” warned Lusk, “a well organized movement to destroy the Government and to erect in its place a class government.” While acknowledging that some “subversive” were violent and others were not, Lusk contended that “There is no sharp line of demarkation between the two. They shade into each other almost imperceptibly.” In particular, he was concerned that “disloyalty was being taught children in the public schools.” Another speaker called for the expansion of “Americanization centres.”
(Even nine years later, a May 1 patriotic rally in New York’s Union Square gathered 10,000 VFW members and other veterans and another 20,000 spectators to hear speakers like Rep. Hamilton Fish thunder that “the life of one American policeman is more important and worth more than all Communists combined” — NY Times, May 2, 1930. A later speaker was the chair of the VFW’s “Americanization committee.”)
Lusk’s emphasis on “loyalty” revived during the later, more famous Red Scare that took place in the first phases of the Cold War. “Loyalty Day” celebrations had begun by 1950, and flourished during a period that also saw “loyalty oaths” required of everyone from schoolteachers to journalists, liquor store owners to professional wrestlers. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower signed the holiday into law in July 1958.
By that law, the president is required to issue a proclamation, and this year Barack Obama (well, hopefully, a ghost-writing intern in the White House) did about as well with that vestigial, thankless task as one could imagine:
In the United States of America, we do not define loyalty as adherence to any single leader, party, or political platform. When we make big decisions as a country, we necessarily stir up passions and controversy. These debates are a hallmark of democracy; they allow us to trade ideas, question antiquated notions, and ensure our Nation’s course reflects the will of the American people. Yet even as we disagree, we remain true to our shared values and our common hopes for America’s future.
On Loyalty Day, we renew our conviction to the principles of liberty, equality, and justice under the law. We accept our responsibilities to one another. And we remember that our differences pale in comparison to the strength of the bonds that hold together the most diverse Nation on earth.