This weekend, families across America will gather with more family and friends and celebrate the unofficial beginning of Summer. Americans nationwide mark our yearly Memorial Day traditions with shimmering swimming pools, colorful parades, grilled foods, inconspicously donned American flags and to my nightful wonder, fireworks. Yes the crackling and popping of fireworks. Our year of cold weather, biting winds and even the torrents of rain this week all seem to be a distant memory with the first day free of school and work where the weather is all but guaranteed to be at its best.
Yet, it was on one of these sunny Summer nights two years ago that a 21-year old South Carolinian walked into Emanuel AME Church, seemingly for prayer services, but instead pulled a gun and shot to death nine members of the all-black congregation. Dylann Roof would later state that his intent was to start a race war, a war to divide the nation on racial lines. However, the actual effect of Roof’s heartless masaacre was much more profound and the complete opposite of what he intended. Roof’s shooting caused the South Carolinian community to further examine the idols of his ideology and what grounds his hate. Within days, the attention of the state turned to South Carolina’s Confederate memorial in front of the Capitol building. And within weeks, Governor Nikki Haley lead the state legislature in voting to remove the Confederate battle flag at the State House grounds.
What Dylann Roof set in motion was to turn society’s attention to face it’s past and connection to a history that as much as we’ve tried to forget, others in our society saw fit to have memorialized for remembrance. Thus, over the last two years the fight to remove monuments and memorials to the leaders of the Confederacy has spread across the South and to the nation as a whole.
And believe it or not, it’s on this premise that America initially began its observance of Memorial Day.
History hardly remembers precisely how Memorial Day started in America. The stories vary. Some attribute it to former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, the very city where Emanuel AME is located, who began memorializing those who died fighting for America. Some point to a gathering of Civil War veterans in Waterloo, New York. And then there are those who highlight stories of those decorating flowers on the graves of the Civil War dead in states like Virginia, Illinois, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia along with over another dozen locations, which mirrored a familiar practice of those desiring to honor the dead dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.
What is actually known to history is that Memorial Day was the responsibility of Civil War general, John A. Logan, who issued a proclamation calling for what was initially called “Decoration Day” to remember and honor those who fought and died in the Civil War. Logan chose May 30th, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen because it was free from any direct link to any particular battle or conflict. Eventually, as states begin to recognize “Decoration Day” as an official holiday, it would become known nationally as Memorial Day.
What is also known is that this was not the first Memorial Day celebrated by Americans. John Logan actually found out about a day where Confederate veterans and families also decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Logan adopted the idea to honor the Union dead and when he did, those who honored the Confederate dead decided to demark their Memorial Day as Confederate Memorial Day to make sure it is not confused with the one Logan started in 1868.
The Confederate Memorial Day, which is still observed to this day by several states in the south, is but one of the few ways many have chosen to honor the “Confederate Cause” from the Civil War. Initially, southerners observed their Memorial Day as a day to remember their loved ones who died in the war. But as the years passed and the leaders of the Confederacy begin to pass with them, the closer it got to anniversaries, the more the south begin to remember the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and memorialize it in other ways.
The Lost Cause was the south’s attempt to rewrite the origins of the Confederacy and why the Civil War was fought. It sought to heroically canonize those who fought against the North and what they saw as unjust aggression. It was a critical belief to help those in the south, as well as the north, to instill a sense of righteousness and absolution in who they were. Northerners begin to slowly believe their efforts to push for the Civil Rights of Black Americans had be sufficient. Southerners desperately wanted to go back to their way of life prior to the Civil War. The Lost Cause set forth the mentality the south wanted to be remembered and not lost to history. Slavery was a benevolent practice mutually beneficial to slave and slave master and not the central cause of the Civil War. Jim Crow laws were the natural extention of what society should be the only workable solution for southern whites who had to live beside southern blacks. And, of course the heroes of the Confederacy were to be honored and remembered as patriots, to be memorialized throughout the south on monuments, in schools and on other sacred grounds. That was the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and those like Dylann Roof celebrate the relics of their failed past. That is the template with which we observe Memorial Day.
In America, we celebrate Memorial Day in different ways. Some extremely curious and derth of any connection to why we are given the day to begin with. It is, afterall a federal holiday. Like most holidays, the meaning and significance of why we celebrate the day is often remembered in the background while most take their day off to spend with friends and family. However, there are those who do remember that Memorial Day is not a holiday to be celebrated, but to be observed. We honor and remember the men and women who fought and died serving the United States of America. Concurrently, the fight to honor and remember the men who took up arms against the United States, who fought and died under a different flag of a separate nation do not deserve the observance of Memorial Day. They do not deserve the honor and dignity of any memorial. Those memorials are the antithesis of what days like Memorial Day are all about. They should be remembered for exactly what they fought for. Just as the tenants of the Lost Cause dictates, the soldiers emblazoned on statues and monuments across America, did fight to preserve their way of life. Their way of life is endemically linked to the substature of the Black American. And that is not who we are on this day or any other day of the year. It’s time we remember the “Lost Cause” for what it was: a lost cause.