Yesterday was Confederate Memorial Day (at least in South Carolina – other southern states celebrate it on other dates), and that provides me with a nice route of ingress into sharing some thoughts that have been swirling around my head for the last couple of months. Quite honestly, I think this will be a tough exercise for me, but I’ll do my best to put together cogent thoughts and not ramble on and on. In fact, I’ll probably end up writing two or three posts out of all the thoughts that are crashing around my brain.
It is not widely appreciated, even in the south, that there is still some considerable debate as to the origin of celebrating Memorial Day in honor of fallen U.S. soldiers. Officially, the town of Waterloo, NY, was declared the “birthplace” of Memorial Day by President Johnson and Congress in 1966. There are many competing traditions, however, that place its origin in southern states where southern women during the Civil War would go out to bury the dead and decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers and small flags after battles.
I was astounded when I moved to South Carolina to learn of Confederate Memorial Day’s existence. It was not something we celebrated in the Atlanta area when I was growing up. I was even more surprised to learn the following spring that it was a school holiday (it’s not anymore, but it was as few as four years ago). Obviously there are some demographic differences between south Atlanta and the low country, but still… I never expected to find a place where the south’s role in the Civil War was officially recognized and celebrated by a government entity.
What I struggle with on Confederate Memorial Day is why people want to celebrate it at all. I can understand someone who is a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier wanting to honor their ancestors for fighting and dying for a cause they believed in. But, for starters, there are people all over the world who are dying for something they believe in, and no one is suggesting that we have a “Muslim Martyr Memorial Day”, for instance. And, secondly, how many of the people that you know who get all amped up about the Confederacy and how “the south will rise again!”, who wear their “stars and bars” belt buckles and wave their Confederate flags – how many of them actually have ancestors who fought for the south? My guess is not all that many. Certainly not all of them. So why the fuss about Confederate Memorial Day?
I have to be transparent here. I am, by no means, an expert on the Constitution or constitutional law. But I have read the Constitution. And I have studied American history pretty extensively (I got a 5 out of 5 on the AP U.S. history exam). And, as I understand the Constitution and how it was interpreted in the late 1850s, I believe that the southern states were within their constitutional rights to secede from the Union. I don’t agree with their decision to do so, I don’t agree with their reasons for doing so (slavery-based economics, mostly), and I am certainly glad that the Union was preserved. But I also believe that the Civil War represented a war between two sovereign nations. (“History is written by the victors”, my history teachers used to say. Our own American Revolution would have been labelled a ‘civil war’ or ‘failed rebellion’ had the British won that war.) Perhaps those people who are adamant about celebrating Confederate Memorial Day simply identify more strongly with what might have been than I do.
But I suspect that a large portion of the push for celebrating Confederate Memorial Day is not really about honoring brave men who died fighting for what they believed, or remembering lost relatives, or standing up for 1850s constitutional rights. I suspect that it has much more to do with an innate desire in some people (I believe the desire is in us all – part of our sinful nature – but some deal with it in a more outward way) to be part of a society or culture in which they are dominant over another group instead of equal with all other groups. And, in the tradition of the American South, I believe that desire has more to do with race than anything else. (In South Carolina, for instance, officially recognizing Confederate Memorial Day was part of the compromise that finally made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday a recognized state holiday – in 2000.)
We’re almost two full generations removed from the Civil Rights Movement, and we’ve elected our first black president, but the fact is that racial issues still abound in the U.S., and not just in the south. And these issues are the substance of what’s been running through my head for the last few months. This post is already too long, and there’s so much more to say. So like I said, this will be the first of several posts in this train of thought.
What about you? Do you celebrate Confederate Memorial Day? Why or why not?