Quick Point: Memorial Day Whitewash
This is Serena Blaiz with a quick point from Pointing Left Media.
It’s Memorial Day, a holiday that may be the most blatantly mythologized and hypocritical one we have in the US. It’s ostensibly designed to honor those who died fighting our wars. In reality, today, it’s about big sales at the stores and barbecue in the back yard. If war dead are mentioned at all, it’s to (falsely) claim that they died “fighting for our freedom.” Which 99.99999% of the time is a big load of corporatist propaganda, designed to encourage the impressionable young to sign up to take a chance on becoming war dead themselves. Better to just focus on sales and BBQ than promote that, in my opinion. Col. Smedley Butler said it best: War is a racket. (more below the video)
What later became named Memorial Day began right after the end of the Civil War, that much is not in dispute, but the other details are debated. Here’s the story I like, and I got this info from African American Registry, aaregistry.org, and Wikipedia.
In mid April 1865 — and this is just days after the war was officially over, remember — former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, wanted to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. When the fighting stopped, they dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom — in this case, literally true. With the task completed, on May 1, nearly 10,000 people marched, sang and celebrated. The event was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.
Who were the participants? About 3,000 Black school children newly enrolled in Freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, Black ministers, and White northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to be placed on the burial field, on land that is now a park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
David W. Blight, a lauded historian who specializes in the slave era, described the day like this: “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Ben Becker, in an essay entitled How Memorial Day Was Stripped of Its African-American Roots shows how this holiday was literally whitewashed.
Here’s a short excerpt from his piece:
The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.
We best honor the war dead by making sure there are no more such sacrifices — on either “side” — to memorialize in the future, by ending war forever, as an idea or practice.
Here in central Oklahoma, there’s an organization dedicated to that pursuit: The Center for Conscience in Action. Full disclosure: I work with CCA. We work to oppose war through education, resistance and empowerment. We are the state chapter of War Resisters League, and a member of World Beyond War and the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth. You can find out more at centerforconscience.org. Join us, donate, spread the word.
Don’t let “honor war dead” continue to be corrupted into “honor war.”
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