The fact is, most Americans celebrate Columbus Day not because he was white, but because he made a voyage to the Western Hemisphere propelled and motivated mostly by faith. In fact, he did not anticipate discovering a new land, but was actually seeking a shorter route to the East Indies in Asia. But what makes Columbus' accomplishments even more special is that as the first identifiable European to visit the Western Hemisphere, his voyage led to the wholesale migration of European peoples to the Americas. Fueled by European immigration and a unique idea of a nation based upon common ideas of liberty and justice for all, the United States subsequently became a superpower.
Personal character should not enter into the equation. If it is appropriate to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights struggles even though he was a plagiarist, a womanizer, an abuser, and had Communist ties, it is just as appropriate to honor Christopher Columbus even if he did employ some harsh measures in dealing with the indigenous populations of the lands which he discovered. It is unfair to judge the actions of someone in the 15th century through the prevalent morality of the 21st century, an eternal principle which explains why those who are not offered salvation in this life get offered salvation in the spirit world.
But another solid indication of the singularity of Columbus' mission is provided by the Book of Mormon. One of the founders of the Nephite civilization, Nephi himself, had a vision of the future of the American continents, in which he also foresaw the discovery and colonizing of America. The specific verse believed to be identified with Christopher Columbus is 1 Nephi 13:12; it's presented below with surrounding verses to provide context:
10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
13 And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.
14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the bland of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.
Although there were many explorers who subsequently journeyed to the Western Hemisphere and launched more permanent colonies, Christopher Columbus was the first. And that's why we believe 1 Nephi 13:12 identifies Christopher Columbus rather than any other explorer.
According to Arnold K. Garr, several Church presidents share this point of view. In 1976, President Ezra Taft Benson stated, “God inspired ‘a man among the Gentiles’ . . . who, by the Spirit of God was led to rediscover the land of America and bring this rich new land to the attention of the people in Europe. That man, of course, was Christopher Columbus, who testified that he was inspired in what he did.” Brigham Young, Spencer W. Kimball and Joseph F. Smith also expressed similar sentiments. In 1992, Friend magazine published an article entitled "Heroes and Heroines: Christopher Columbus, Inspired Seaman", and at the same time, Ensign magazine published an article entitled "Columbus and the Hand of God".
The bottom line -- all our heroes have flaws. But it doesn't make their heroism any less heroic.