It looks like it’s the K of C vs. the KKK in this year’s face-off over perennial legislative attempts to eliminate Colorado’s observance of Columbus Day.

The fabled explorer’s namesake and ardent defender, the Catholic service organization Knights of Columbus, is taking the fight straight to what it maintains was the original author of the campaign to dump the holiday. The Knights say the notoriously anti-black, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, which once held considerable sway in Colorado among many other states, started the drive to dethrone Columbus a century ago. In other words, well before Native American groups and others took up that cause based on their view that the renowned Italian mariner was racist and genocidal.

The Knights of Columbus have opened the new front in the long-standing war over Columbus Day — the second Monday in October — just as Democratic Thornton state Rep. Joe Salazar’s House Bill 1327, repealing Columbus Day in Colorado, heads to its second committee hearing in the state House. The bill was approved last week by majority Democrats on a party-line vote in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee and is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the House Local Government Committee.

In a statement issued today by national Knights of Columbus spokesman Isaac Cuevas, the organization calls on Colorado state lawmakers not to advance the “Klan plan.” The statement points to the holiday’s association with Italian-Americans and Catholics as a motivation for the KKK’s opposition:

Nearly a century ago, the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado targeted Catholics including Italian-Americans. One of the Klan’s tactics throughout the United States was the denigration of Christopher Columbus and the attempted suppression of the holiday in his honor. Last week, in a hearing tinged with offensive anti-Catholic overtones, the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee advanced a plan to ban Columbus Day in what its advocates call a “progressive” step. In fact, it is regressive as it takes us back to what the Klan outlined in the 1920s in order to promote ethnic and religious resentment and marginalize and intimidate people with different religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds. We urge the swift rejection of this bill in any future hearings.

An extensive legislative declaration in Salazar’s bill cites historical accounts of mass killings and other barbarism by Columbus’s crew members against native peoples on his expeditions to the New World:

…They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in a slaughter house.

The Knights and other defenders of Columbus contend he is unfairly maligned and the target of revisionist history. They say he is used as a scapegoat for all the calamities that befell the native peoples of the Americas following the European conquest and that Columbus actually forbid his crew from engaging in the heinous acts now attributed to him.

As part of the group’s outreach on this issue, it cites a recent commentary for the Catholic News Agency by Baltimore African-American pastor and community activist Rev. Eugene Rivers, who criticizes a push in his city to repeal Columbus Day as a municipal holiday:

…attacks on Columbus and Columbus Day were originated by the very group that has historically led racist attacks on blacks. These attacks were created in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan as part of a targeted assault on Italians, Catholics, and the Catholic charitable group the Knights of Columbus.

We must not forget that, in addition to African Americans, the Klan hated Catholics and Jews as well. And they had a particular hatred for the Knights of Columbus. Not only was this a Catholic group, but it was a group that stood publicly – at its highest levels – with the African American community.

Although the day has been a federal holiday since 1937, it first became a state holiday in Colorado in 1905. It has been a bone of contention in Denver, with opponents of the holiday clashing with and blocking participants in the city’s annual Columbus Day Parade in some years. Last October’s observance was relatively peaceful, however; the parade went on without incident while opponents held a separate demonstration elsewhere.

The Denver City Council has since voted to designate the day as Indigenous Peoples Day.

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