Inside the Bizarre World of State Holidays Honoring KKK Wizards and Lobbyists

The easy way to quietly placate embarrassing or extreme supporters is getting harder to pull off.

by Michael Waters
Dec 4 2019, 3:30pm

Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos via Shutterstock, Public Domain and Nathan Bedford/flickr 

In 1969, Tennessee had a problem. For nearly half a century—since 1921—lawmakers had celebrated Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, named for the Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the KKK, who was born in the state. But in the face of the Civil Rights Movement, closing down government offices and some private businesses in honor of a white supremacist terrorist leader was increasingly untenable.

So they tried a new tactic. Rather than keep Nathan Bedford Forrest Day as a state holiday, lawmakers mandated the governor recognize the occasion every July 13 through proclamation—a kind of liminal space where the holiday receives gubernatorial endorsement but not much else.

"It's sort of a slight of hand," said Courtney Carney, a professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University who's writing a book on Forrest's legacy. "It's saying, 'Look, we're not honoring him, but we’re not not honoring him.' It's all a deeply entwined political move to excuse Tennessee on one level and not really change anything on the other."

Decades later, there are hundreds of bizarre holidays that state governors designate through proclamation, many of them far from controversial. Over the years, residents have observed (or been encouraged to observe) everything from Watch Your Car Month to Michigan Wine Month to Admit You’re Happy Day. Outside of a photo op with the governor, they hold little actual weight. Businesses won’t close, and fourth-graders probably won’t make dioramas. Nor do they require lawmakers to vote them into existence. Instead, they often float freely on the press releases page of a governor's website.

But to a small group of individuals and organizations ranging from innocuous nonprofits to explosive political interest groups, these holidays are important markers of legitimacy at a time of intense polarization and ideological rancor. They occupy an ideal in-between space where powerful people can tacitly support a cause without, at least in theory, getting serious backlash.

Increasingly, in this moment of especially intense, Internet-dominated discourse, that backlash comes anyway.

Anyone can request an official proclamation through an online form on most governors' websites, and some organizations publish guidelines directing their members to do just that. The process for handing proclamations varies widely; some governors promise photo ops, some do not. South Dakota issued close to 400 proclamations last year, and Kristin Wileman, press secretary for the state's new governor, Kristi Noem, told the Capital Journal this spring that they did not appear to have rejected even one proposal.

"A proclamation is still a popular means to help highlight an important issue or recognize someone special," Wileman explained in an email. "Requests for proclamations aren't judged based on who submitted the request but instead on the merit of the issue and the substance of the text."

But gubernatorial proclamations have also become an obscure way that governors signal to their supporters, some of whom they might not be all that excited to meaningfully embrace otherwise. On November 1, 2018, Colorado’s then-Governor John Hickenlooper issued a formal proclamation recognizing the anniversary of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the state's most powerful lobbying firms. His endorsement of "Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck 50th Anniversary Day," less than a month after agents of the Saudi government murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, drew national attention because of BHFS's extensive dealings with the regime. But less notice was paid to the fact that BHFS had maxed out on donations—a full $5,000—to Hickenlooper's Giddy Up PAC a month and a half prior. (Hickenlooper later acknowledged the "unfortunate timing" of the proclamation, but added that the holiday was only "a ceremonial thing," and did not respond to a request for further comment from VICE.)

Versions of this game play out across the economy. The beef industry has convinced friendly governors from Iowa to Kansas to endorse "Beef Month" in May. After the Georgia Pharmacy Association donated $5,000 to Governor Brian Kemp's campaign, it received the governor's support on a signature piece of legislation—and a proclamation of Georgia Pharmacy Technician Appreciation Day. A Georgian wondering why Kemp declared September "Balloon Month" might be surprised to learn that among Kemp's top donors ($25,000 in 2018) were employees of burton + BURTON, a large balloon manufacturer in the state. (Kemp's office did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.)

These proclamations are less about policy than affirming the relationship between a donor and a politician, according to Jennifer Victor, who studies lobbying at George Mason University. "A group or industry can benefit from a symbolic act, like a governor’s proclamation, by drawing some publicity or legitimacy to a cause," she explained. Meanwhile, to a governor, "the act is pretty low cost because it does not involve real policy change," she added.

The stakes attached to these holidays are often minimal. You would be hard-pressed to gather objectors to a holiday like the Common Ground Alliance's "National Safe Digging Month." But cases like Nathan Bedford Forrest Day illustrate their potential to become dog whistles.

"We live in a time now where every day is 'national day of something,'" Carney said. "It's almost comical. We’ve lowered the stakes of what these things mean, which means we can do anything." In the case of Forrest, Carney said, "You don't want to be the governor that says Forrest isn’t part of the story." (A spokesperson for Bill Lee, the current governor of Tennessee, told VICE, "Gov. Lee has expressed a desire to work with the legislature and change the proclamation law.")

During his 2009 campaign for Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell promised the Sons of Confederate Veterans that, if elected, he would issue a proclamation of Confederate Heritage Month. The sacrifice seemed small: in exchange for potential votes, all McDonnell had to do was publish a press release on his website. True to his word, on April 2, 2010, McDonnell recognized April as the month when Virginia "joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence," originally committing any reference to slavery before later condemning it. (McDonnell was later convicted of corruption in an unrelated case, though the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the sentence.)

Two years later, the Sons of Confederate Veterans found another governor who recognized the political value of granting its requests. Since taking office in 2012, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has recognized Confederate Heritage Month by proclamation every April. A spokesman has explained he's just continuing a tradition in the state that dates back to 1993, adding, "Gov. Bryant believes Mississippi's history deserves study and reflection, no matter how unpleasant or complicated parts of it may be."

But Bryant's proclamations transcended a mere symbolic nod. As Mississippi Today reported in 2017, the governor's relationship with the Sons of Confederate Veterans ran deep: he himself was a dues-paying member.

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