The State House

The Alabama State House

For Michael Feld, Fraternal Day is perfect middle ground in the annual battle over honoring Columbus.

Hold a parade for Columbus Day, and you’re likely to draw protest from Native Americans. Pointedly ignore the explorer, and you’ve disgruntled traditionalists and possibly Italian-Americans.

So, what if you have Fraternal Day, a day when every fraternal group from the Boy Scouts to the Shriners holds celebrations on the public square, touting their accomplishments and drawing in more members?

“In an ideal world, we’d have a parade that the Knights of Columbus and groups of indigenous people would participate in,” said Feld, a Huntsville resident and member of a local Masonic lodge. “You could split the difference.”

In Alabama, according to law books at least, Feld already has his wish. Alabama may have been the first state in the union to make Fraternal Day a state holiday, back in 1915. And it may be the last state with a Fraternal Day still on the books. When state workers stay home Monday, they’ll officially be observing not only Columbus Day and American Indian Heritage Day but also a holiday designed to honor fraternal organizations.

Just why the holiday exists is a mystery to most, even to many of the state employees who have it on their official calendars.

“I’ve got nothing,” said Norwood Kerr, a research archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Well, not exactly nothing.  Kerr did find that the Legislature established the holiday a century ago, first as an observance on the second Thursday in October. Then, in the 1930s, the state moved Fraternal Day to the same date as Columbus Day. But there’s no record, at least in the state’s archives, of the debate that led up to those decisions.

Feld says that 100 years ago, membership in fraternal organizations was much more common than it is today, and a group called the National Congress of Fraternal Organizations began a push for a national day for those organizations to have a holiday to themselves.

“Mighty forces have been, and are at work in the cause of Darkness against the spirit, precepts and application alike of the teachings of Fraternalism – which are the applied Golden Rule,” the NCFO’s National Fraternal Day committee wrote in a 1917 plea for a national holiday.

“You don’t hear language like that these days,” Feld said. But Feld believes the part about the Golden Rule. As a Mason, he says, he can find a friend almost anywhere he goes in the world – a community other people don’t have to fall back on.

“It’s like you’ve already been vetted,” he said. “It’s like a background check.”

And many of our current social ills, he claims, are due to the lack of those social connections.

“It sounds like something we need today,” he said of the fraternal movement. “So many of our problems come from a lack of community.”

Last year, on Alabama’s 100th Fraternal Day, Feld actually organized a celebration of the holiday, a three-hour event at a YMCA in Madison, with Shrine clowns, shaved ice and the Bloodmobile on hand.

Feld thinks it could be much bigger, with parades and organizational fairs that draw attention to civic organizations, if he can get other people on board to help organize it.

“If anybody out there is interested in promoting Fraternal Day, I’d love to hear from them,” he said.

A century ago, the holiday did seem to catch on. And then it fizzled. Then, in Alabama at least, things got weird.

For two decades, Fraternal Day headlines popped up in newspapers across nation’s heartland, though not always in October. “Members of eight orders in mammoth parade,” says a September 1916 headline in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal. “Fraternal Day Parade viewed by thousands,” read a 1914 headline in the Allentown, Pa. Democrat.

The day slowly moved off the front page. By 1954, when The Star published a list of Alabama’s state holidays, a Goat Hill staffer called to correct the paper.

“She insists she has never heard of any such holiday as Fraternal Day even though she has been in the Capitol for several years,” said an anonymous editorial writer in the Feb. 3, 1954 edition.

Fraternal Day is in fact still on the books, but it’s easy to see why even a Capitol insider would be confused. According to The Star’s archives, lawmakers in 1931 moved the date of Fraternal Day, in an effort to supplant Columbus Day. Then, in 1933, they voted to bring Columbus Day back and abolish Fraternal Day.

A news story printed years later is the only hint of the ethnic conflict at the heart of that change.

“Columbus Day, once changed in Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan, was observed today with closing of all state departments by Gov. Frank M. Dixon,” reads a wire story in the Oct. 12, 1939 edition of The Star.

The story doesn’t explain why the Klan wanted Columbus Day abolished, but a few historical accounts suggest Klan opposition to the holiday in other states, and the KKK was often at odds with the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. The 1939 wire story says Columbus Day was reinstated “though agitation of the large Italian population of Birmingham.”

It’s unclear why Columbus Day/Fraternal Day stayed on the books as a double-barrelled holiday. It’s not the one on the state calendar: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also Robert E. Lee Day here. State workers also get a day off for Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Jefferson Davis.

Feld, the Fraternal Day organizer, said he’d never heard of the Klan’s attempt to claim the Fraternal Day as its own.

“I’m surprised,” he said. “What the Klan does is contrary to the intent of Fraternal Day – the spirit of the Golden Rule.”

He said there will be no Fraternal Day event in Madison this year. It’s the curse of the local organizer: the demands of daily life left Feld little time to set something up. And he’s an accountant for a defense contractor, which doesn’t come with all the benefits of direct government employment.

“I’ll be working that day,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.