President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, in 1940, a law declaring the third Sunday in May “I Am an American Day.” The observance was originally organized by Bronislava du Brissac, a Polish refugee immigrant who had “achieved the American Dream as a refugee immigrant to the U.S., to now being part of a wealthy, successful family.” Some of the celebrations of that day included patriotic speeches, parades, and, in at least one case, naturalized immigrants bringing wreaths to Uncle Sam to symbolize the “gifts” of skills and trade they had given to the United States.

“I Am an American Day” quickly changed in tone after its adoption. It moved away from a celebration of civic duty—especially in conjunction with Roosevelt’s New Deal—and the contributions of diverse citizenry and toward something with far more nationalistic and jingoistic implications. Given that the U.S. entered into World War II only a year and a half after its official establishment, I Am an American Day became closely tied to the “war effort,” by which I largely mean war propaganda. In many places—the West Coast in particular—I Am an American Day celebrations deliberately excluded the representation of Asian Americans, especially Japanese Americans who were being sent to internment camps.

This is an aerial shot taken in 1942 of the Puyallup Assembly Center which was also known by a more cruelly euphemistic name: Camp Harmony.

On February 29, 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring September 17—the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution—Citizenship Day, replacing the former, more problematic I Am an American Day. Signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, Citizenship Day—overlapping with Constitution Day—was meant to refocus attention on civic responsibility and celebrating the lofty ideals of U.S. citizenship. In his first Citizenship Day address, “Truman articulated a bold view of American citizenship, one that relinquished nationalistic animosities and racial prejudices and embraced the principles of ‘tolerance, friendship and equality.’ ‘We welcome you,’ Truman declared, ‘not to a narrow nationalism but to a great community based on a set of universal ideals.’”

While Truman was most assuredly racist (content note: linked article quotes anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Semitic slurs used by the former president), his presidency was—however counterintuitively—heavily focused on civil rights domestically: he desegregated the military, supported anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation, and was the first president to campaign in Harlem. In foreign affairs, Truman supported Israel (that’s a whole other bucket of worms), vetoed legislation that would continue national origin quotas on immigration, and counted the Berlin Airlift as one of his foreign policy triumphs. Truman seemed, publicly, to truly believe in the spirit of Citizenship Day.

Image credit: James Vaughan

Of course, Citizenship Day was created at the same time that the fear of “the Red Menace” was rising to a fever pitch. The legislation he vetoed was the McCarran-Walter Act, an attempt at immigration reform that was aimed at denying potential socialists or communists from entering the United States. Congress overrode his veto and the McCarran-Walter Act became law in June of 1952, between the joint resolution establishing Citizenship Day (February 1952) and Truman’s idealistic Citizenship Day speech in September of the same year.

Though McCarthy didn’t start the Red Scare, he sure did heed the clarion call.

The progenitor of McCarthyism himself was also making a ruckus in 1952. Capitalizing off of both the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare, Sen. McCarthy accused the Truman Administration of knowingly harboring and employing communists and perverts. He dubbed the twenty year period of Democrats holding the Oval Office—Roosevelt’s and Truman’s terms—as the “twenty years of treason.” His adversarial politics cemented the association of the politics of the Red Scare with McCarthyism, overshadowing the decades-long anti-communist aims of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was an indictment of McCarthyism, drawing a direct line from it to the literal witch hunts of years past.

This is the context in which Citizenship Day was created and overlaid on top of Constitution Day. It is possible that it was never anyone’s intention to create observance meant to stand in direct contrast to the “Red Menaces” and so-called perverts hiding in the U.S. It’s entirely possible that no one considered how we conceptualized the idea of the Citizen as only being certain ethnicities, races, and nationalities. Nevertheless, we cannot remove its creation and celebration from the contemporary context.

In an attempt to distance itself from perceived socialist or communist leanings, various groups in the Labor Movement created/commissioned interesting twists on the typical Red Scare propaganda poster. Photo found here; the linked page includes a discussion of the unknown provenance of the image.

It’s important to recognize what our idea of the Citizen is now and how, beyond the legal definition, it is defined in contrast to other identities. In our current political landscape, the Citizen is white; is heterosexual; is cissexual; probably identifies themselves as Christian; is able-bodied, or at least not disabled in a way that inconveniences anyone; and they are certainly not poor. The Citizen is who we consider normal and everyone else is other.

A naturalization ceremony takes place overlooking the Grand Canyon.

As we reel from the continued state-sanctioned violence against Black communities and against protestors; as the fundamental rights of trans folks are debated in the Courts; as the current administration threatens to roll back hard won victories for Queer folks; as our Congress is refusing to help people on the brink of eviction, of going hungry in the middle of a pandemic; as this administration that constantly contradicts itself has instituted a “Muslim ban” but don’t call it a “Muslim ban” but it really is a “Muslim ban”… as all these things are going on, it’s important to think about how we understand citizenship and how our elected government does or does not afford all legal citizens the rights afforded citizens. Who, in the cultural imaginary, do we think matters? How can we change the idea of the Citizen to include all citizens? How do we make sure that all U.S. citizens are actually treated as though they are “welcome…not to a narrow nationalism but to a great community based on a set of universal ideals?”

Photo credit: Disabled And Here

I think pondering those questions may be the best way to observe Citizenship Day or, at least, the most timely.

Here are some resources directly from the US government that might help as we try to grapple with these complicated questions:

And, hey. Don’t forget to vote! Go here to make sure you’re registered to vote. Go here to request an absentee ballot so that you can vote by mail.

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