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May Day vs. Loyalty Day

May 1, 2013 4:09 PM | 0 comments

May 1st is a day that means different things to different people.  For some, it is a day to celebrate the glory of spring with a dance around the maypole.  For many, it is known variously as International Workers' Day, Labour Day, or simply May Day -- a commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and an acknowledgement of the strides made by the labor rights movement since then.  For a smaller subset, May 1st is Loyalty Day, a day to pledge allegiance to the flag and reassert one's "love and devotion to the nation."  It is of course no coincidence that the latter two celebrations fall on the same patch of temporal real estate -- Brooklyn's Loyalty Day was initiated by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in 1948, according to a Brooklyn Eagle article, "to counteract Communist propaganda of Red May Day demonstrators and to provide an opportunity for faithful Americans to publicly express their loyalty to this nation and its institutions."

With the help of interns working on the Project CHART IMLS grant, we have digitized several Brooklyn Eagle photographs of Loyalty Day as it was celebrated from 1948 - 1952.

Although Brooklyn's first Loyalty Day parade wasn't mounted until 1948, the concept had been around since the first Red Scare of the 1920s.  According to the VFW, the event was first observed as "Americanization Day" in 1921 and was resurrected in the late 1940s under the newer moniker.  The Brooklyn Eagle gave extensive coverage to the new holiday in the weeks leading up to May 1st, 1948, with nearly daily updates on endorsements from officials and civic organizations that had signed on to march. On March 13th of that year, Brooklyn borough president John Cashmore officially designated May 1st as Loyalty Day.  Of course not everyone was pleased with the tactical ploy to draw attention away from May Day.  Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., a city councilmember and member of the Communist party rejected the VFW leadership as "pro-Fascist" and argued that May Day was about labor rights, not celebrating Communism, as it had been characterized by Loyalty Day promoters.

On May 2nd, the Eagle reported 50,000 marchers in Brooklyn's Loyalty Day parade, fully half of which were drawn from the ranks of Brooklyn's schoolchildren. The parade route took the marchers from Grand Army Plaza, right under the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, down Flatbush Avenue to Fulton Street and on to Brooklyn's Borough Hall, with 24 bands providing the tempo.  Coverage in the Eagle was lavish, with less notice given to the May Day festivities in Manhattan.  What mention it did give was dismissive: "while leaders of labor's May Day Parade estimated that more than 100,000 members of 60 unions and fraternal organizations participated in the demonstration, the Police Bureau of Operations estimated that 12,000 marched before 30,000 spectators."

The following year saw an even bigger celebration, with Governor Thomas E. Dewey throwing in his endorsement and declaring Loyalty Day a statewide observance.  The 1949 parade was held on April 30th, with a reported 80,000 marchers and 250,000 onlookers crowding the corridor between Prospect Park and downtown Brooklyn.  From his perch on the reviewing stand, Mayor O'Dwyer declared, "[t]he main purpose of this parade is to let the enemies from within know that the people are on their toes and will not stand for them.  Let there be no confusion as to what this day means.  This is the occasion on which the people have drawn a sharp line and decided what loyalty to their country means."  In August of that year, the national convention of the VFW adopted Loyalty Day as a nationwide initiative.  Congress declared Loyalty Day a legal holiday in 1958, with President Eisenhower issuing a proclamation on Loyalty Day the following year.  It has since become an annual tradition for the sitting president to issue a similar proclamation on the now largely forgotten holiday.