Harrison County

After Twitter fiasco, Biloxi will honor Martin Luther King Jr. ‘the right way’

Biloxi City Hall
Biloxi City Hall tmsmith@sunherald.com File

After the city of Biloxi deleted tweets and Facebook posts it made Friday that said its non-emergency offices would be closed Monday in observance of “Great Americans Day,” Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich announced a special meeting is set for 10 a.m. Monday to honor Martin Luter King Jr. “the right way.”

The posts had gone viral and backlash ensued. Now, at the special meeting, the mayor is expected to ask the City Council to change an outdated ordinance to remember Martin Luther King Jr. as the rest of the nation does.

The city had posted the status update to Facebook and Twitter at 5:18 p.m. Friday. It took only a few minutes for people to start responding. Two hours later, the post had been amended to add Great Americans Day was a state-named holiday, and to include a link to its MLK events.

At first, the city went on to tweet in defense of the post, saying people were overlooking the importance of the holiday. Many Facebook and Twitter users disagreed — posts had dozens of responses that contained words that can’t be repeated on SunHerald.com or in the newspaper.

Not a state holiday

But Great Americans Day is a not state-named holiday but a city-enacted title. Gilich said the city passed an ordinance in December 1985 to call the third Monday in January Great Americans Day “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.”

For the record, Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday. Great Americans Day doesn’t exist as a holiday in Google, Wikipedia or for the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office, which recognizes a joint celebration of King’s and Robert E. Lee’s birthdays. Lee, a commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, has his birthday celebrated Jan. 19. “Great Americans Day” also did not appear in a media-database search of all Mississippi news sources for the past 20 years.

Four hours after the Great Americans Day posts had been made and shared, Gilich released a statement on the city’s Facebook page.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s called ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.’”

National response

By Saturday morning, Biloxi had deleted the postings that mentioned Great Americans Day, but they had already been saved, shared and written about across the nation.

MSNBC host Christopher Hayes tweeted to more than 834,000 followers that Great Americans Day “is not the name of the holiday.”

Olympic gold medalist Brittney Reese, a Gulfport native, shared the tweet and added her own comments, calling the name change sad.

The story was picked up by BuzzFeed News, ABC News, Huffington Post and The Hill. #biloxirenamesholidays was the No. 1 trending hashtag on Twitter on Friday night.

Locally, politicians and City Council members expressed their disbelief at the tweet.

State Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, the youngest black legislator ever elected in Mississippi and the United States, said the city’s posts were “unbelievable.” In a text to the Sun Herald, he said: “Given the climate of our country, the post by The City of Biloxi seemed to mobilize or begin a local conversation around inclusion and history.

“There are a lot of things in our local communities that need to be undone to put Mississippi on a more progressive path to the future. It will definitely take citizens being more involved in local government as well as state for us to get there.”

Biloxi Councilwoman Dixie Newman said she didn’t know the city would be using the wording from the 1985 city ordinance.

“Why the ordinance was dug up to be used this particular time, I am unsure of,” Newman said. “I learned about this the same way you did.

“I want to apologize on behalf of the City of Biloxi. Please enjoy the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and be safe.”

Meeting will revisit ordinance

On Saturday afternoon, Gilich announced the meeting on Biloxi’s website, just hours before the city’s parade would roll, so the city “can formally change a 30-year-old ordinance to reflect the national name of the holiday.

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

“In my opinion, that is the appropriate step to take for the holiday to have the same name as the federal holiday.”

Councilman Felix Gines asked his Facebook friends to come to the meeting celebrate King’s dream.

“Dr. King was a fighter, and he stood up to injustice,” Gines said. “I'm saddened by the ones who quit and walk away (boycott). This is the time to stand up.”

MLK week ‘forgotten’

Gines had said earlier on Facebook the city is supposed to observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s achievements and contributions for an entire week, from Jan. 8 to Jan. 15, according to a 1984 ordinance, but he noted that has been “forgotten.”

The Sun Herald Editorial board said the city should call a special meeting Monday to address the issue.

Creel said Saturday the response to the posts was agitating.

“It’s very frustrating, very frustrating for Mayor Gilich, for the city leaders, to be labeled as racist, when this is something we did not originate,” he said. “We’ve got a long history of diversity and welcoming people to our community.”

The city is hosting several MLK celebrations, including a Monday parade.