By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
In 1971 Memorial Day officially became a Federal holiday, but the annual observance of a day honoring fallen soldiers is a tradition dating back to the end of the Civil War. The earliest known report of what was then called “Decoration Day” is from a New York Tribune. According to the article the first Memorial Day was held in Charleston, SC, on May 1, 1865 after a group of African-Americans, mostly former slaves, gave 257 Union soldiers a proper burial. The black community in Charleston then consecrated the new cemetery with “an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people,” led by 3,000 black school children.
One this Memorial Day, a century and half after the first and fifty years after it became a national holiday, we as a nation, pause to remember and honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives upholding their oath the Constitution and fighting for democracy in America. But it is safe to say this Memorial Day is unlike any other as it is the first to occur after a violent and deadly insurrection on our Capitol.
Moreover, it is a tragic Memorial Day because the men and women who gave their lives defending our democracy have been disrespected and their sacrifice denigrated by every Republican who refused to support the “January 6th Commission.”
The mother of officer Brian Sicknick, who died defending the Capitol, begged for their support called it “a slap in the face to police officers;” but to every person in uniform who died for this nation, Republicans have spit on their graves and in the face of their Gold Star Families.
It’s easy to wave the flag, spout conservative rhetoric, and call yourself a “true” American; but the genuine measure of a patriot is fighting for the truth, for justice, and democracy. Military personnel take an oath to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States…” It is not unlike the oath members of Congress take. The difference is our service members will lay down their lives to keep it, while members of Congress won’t even standup to do the same.
It is hard to deny that history is repeating itself and America is in a “cold” civil war. It’s doubly hard not mourn the millions of lives lost in her defense if their sacrifice was for nothing.
As President Lincoln said,
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We often think of “memorial” as a static thing, an object, or to stop for a moment. It is the time we think of it as an action, a directed purpose, to honor and memorialize the fallen by protecting, ensuring, and fortifying our American democracy from within. The Union soldiers first honored in 1865 saved the Nation for us and generations since have protected it from fascism, communism, and dictators. The greatest honor we could lay at their graves today is repaying them by actively engaging and participating in the democracy they defended.