Rhetoric condemning Christopher Columbus seems to have become as constant a part of his annual holiday as department store sales, but we are reminded this year that the celebration arose out of an immigrant group’s heroic struggle to overcome deep and sometimes deadly bias.
In his cover article for The New York Times Sunday opinion section, Brent Staples recounts how President Benjamin Harrison ordered a one-time national holiday in the explorer’s honor in 1892, mostly to quell the Italian government’s outrage over the unpunished lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans the year before.
Staples won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for a collection of columns in the Times, mostly on the legacy of slavery. One of the articles took southern newspapers to task for having encouraged and applauded lynchings, and praised the Montgomery Advertiser for a front-page editorial apology.
Now, he has taken his own newspaper to task for its coverage of the 1891 murders of the eleven Italians in New Orleans—a lynching that stemmed from public outrage over the acquittals a jury issued in the first trial in the slaying of the city’s police chief. “If the verdict had been acquiesced in by the people of New-Orleans, their acquiescence would have shown that there is not power and virtue in the community,” the Times editorialized on March 17, 1891.
Staples assailed the coverage:
. . . a scabrous Times editorial justified the lynching—and dehumanized the dead, with by-now-familiar racist stereotypes.
“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians,” the editors wrote, “the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cutthroat practices … are to us a pest without mitigations. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.”
As powerful as Staples’s writing is, it is an individual’s response that falls short of the institutional apology that many Italian American organizations, led by the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, had sought in a May 1 letter to the Times. Michael Santo, a New York attorney who wrote the letter on behalf of the order, said in a telephone interview that the Staples op-ed, which he praised, “has nothing to do with the request for an apology.”