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Commission for Social Justice® Responds to Criticism of Columbus Celebration

Contact: Diane E. Crespy, (202) 547-2900 dcrespy@osia.org

Washington, D.C., Oct. 6, 2000 -The Commission for Social Justice® (CSJ), the leading anti-defamation organization for the Italian-American community, has responded to criticism from various groups which represent native Americans and Hispanics, concerning activities planned throughout the country in celebration of Columbus Day.

Particularly, the parade in which CSJ and Order Sons of Italy in America® (OSIA) members are participating on Saturday, Oct. 7, in Denver, is at the center of attention. Denver's Columbus Day parade has been picketed and interrupted over the years by groups who consider Columbus' discovery of America an invasion, and accuse him of genocide and colonialism. The once annual parade was cancelled in 1992 due to threats of violence and this is the first year it has resumed.

Groups in opposition to the parade have threatened violence if Columbus' name is used in this year's parade. The Denver Post reported that the condition of omission of any Columbus references was forced upon parade planners after the original parade permit was granted. Parade organizers stated that they would march anyway.

In an effort to curb potential violence, representatives from the Italian-American, native American, and Hispanic communities have met numerous times with city officials to try to resolve the situation. The U.S. Justice Department was called in to negotiate. "March for Italian Pride" was suggested as an alternate name for the parade, but Italian-American groups and parade organizers feel this is an infringement of their First Amendment right to free speech.

"What they are asking us to do is a violation of our rights as Americans. We have the right to celebrate individuals and events that are significant to us, as long as we are within the confines of the law," CSJ National President John Dabbene said. "We will celebrate Columbus and our ancestry peacefully, as we do every year across the country."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has spoken out in favor of the rights of the parade organizers.

The CSJ acknowledges Columbus' documented involvement in the mistreatment of Native American peoples. "But, judging a 15th Century man by 21st century values and standards is unfair," observes Dabbene.

Slavery was not prohibited by Great Britain, creator of the Magna Carta (1215) until 1833, and the United States permitted slavery until the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Remnants of the slave trade (especially that of Muslim powers) persisted until international action against it began in the late 19th Century.

"As inherently wrong as slavery is, still it was the universal norm," CSJ National Executive Director Philip R. Piccigallo, Ph.D., said. "Columbus did not introduce slavery or colonialism to the Americas. The pre-Columbian Aztecs widely practiced both, along with such ignoble deeds as torture and human sacrifice by the thousands."

There has also been frequent criticism that claim Columbus was not the first to discover America. The CSJ recognizes the existence of evidence that numerous individuals may have reached the Americas prior to Columbus, including Vikings, Africans, Chinese, Jews, and the British. Nevertheless, "historians generally agree that Columbus' landing was of definitive and lasting significance," Piccigallo said.

"Columbus' landing on the Americas was the beginning of prolonged and continuous contact between the Old World and the New World. It was the commencement of the world as we know it today," he added.

The CSJ profoundly regrets any harm done to innocent people or to the environment as the result of European discoveries and eventually settlements in the New World. However, "the CSJ refuses to condemn 15th century behavior from the more enlightened perspectives of the 21st century," Dabbene said. He added that Columbus serves as an important symbol of courage, ingenuity, creativity, and the strength of the human spirit for Italian Americans.

"Rather than condemning Columbus, the CSJ encourages the celebration of his achievement as the historically decisive opening of dialogue, trade, and travel between Europe and the Americas," he said.

"Columbus should not be blamed for everything negative associated with a highly industrialized, technological, urbanized, crime-saturated, and toxic-waste-ridden society," Piccigallo added. "All human endeavors are necessarily flawed."

The CSJ has called for universal temperance, fairness, and balance on the part of those who would use the Columbus celebrations to exploit and promote, for political or other purposes, the real or perceived shortcomings of Columbus, his discoveries, and the consequences of his actions.

The CSJ is the anti-defamation arm of the Order Sons of Italy in America® (OSIA), the largest and longest-existing organization of Italian-American men and women in the world. Founded in 1905, OSIA represents one-half million members throughout the United States. For more information, contact the CSJ at csj@osia.org, (202) 547-2900, or visit www.osia.org.