It might surprise Americans that Memorial Day was likely started by former Slaves. It was May 1865, and they were grateful for Union soldiers who’d sacrificed their lives.
The newly free citizens spent two weeks carefully digging up the bodies of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp in Charleston North Carolina, and giving them a proper reburial. Then, led by 2,800 Black children, 10,000 joined in a celebratory parade-like march filled with singing to honor and respect the fallen soldiers.
I think now would be a very good time for us to reflect on and carry on with the work they started.
I am not suggesting we dig up bodies. I am suggesting we dig up buried facts of our Country’s history, reflecting and honoring them this weekend, too, as we attend parades and celebrations.
This year, I will be thinking of my great grandfather Samuel Bauer who was in Minnesota’s First Volunteer Infantry. They mustered for three years (most soldiers mustered for three months) for the Union Army, suffering deep casualties during critical battles, including Gettysburg.
In fact, the Gettysburg Address was given by Lincoln honoring my great grandfather’s fallen comrades, when they were reburied and consecrated. Much like the freed slaves later did for other soldiers.
The speech was also, of course, famous for being Lincoln’s declaration that the Civil War was fought to secure the rights of freedom for African American Slaves. When he memorably started by harkening back to the words of the Country’s founding:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln went on, issuing a call to all there to carry on in memory of the fallen soldiers’ efforts. He knew they were far from enough to forever stop the deep injustices of slavery.
“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.”
Continuing, he again connected our country’s history to its future by quoting from the preamble to the US Constitution. ‘Of the people, by the people.’ He was appealing not only to government bureaucrats and other history-writers. But on all citizens to engage in the ongoing labors of upholding America’s foundational ideals for justice and equality. And Lincoln wasn’t only speaking to the people of those times when he said ‘that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.’
The President was, in effect, framing up the work of many generations following the Civil War. Which was only the beginning of a much bigger task for all citizens of the Nation, to continue.
What this means might not have occurred to some of us contemporary Americans. This Memorial Day leaves us with more work to be done. To remember not only the soldiers who fought, but also to the slaves who’s lives were emancipated by law, by their sacrifice. If not yet by the communities and culture all had to find a way to share.
Their Black descendants walk among us as our fellow citizens. As does the ghost of brutal Slave owners, whose White descendants — like so many others of us — have yet to fully understand the imperatives our history set up for us all. We can see how it’s been forgotten or overlooked, or worse: in rampant poverty, poor education and unjust police profiling of Blacks, to this day.
Beginning this Memorial Day we all must emancipate our personal, living humanity and do our part to continue building on the work Lincoln memorialized, with gratitude. Not only celebrating, but also engaging in the work that he and so many soldiers -– like my great-grandfather -– began. Only for us, it needn’t be bloody at all.
One powerful way to is offered by the Video Racial Healing effort, which has White Americans speaking truth to the reverberating issues of their privilege and still-prevailing White supremacy. You can see their self-made videos at www.me2wehealingvideos.com along with others’ written thoughts on the too. As well as tips on how
to prepare for discussing racial issues. And for those who are ready, how to share your own written or video taped voice for racial healing.
To honor Abraham Lincoln’s instructions for all We the People. By joining together in union and contributing to the ongoing need for justice, until all citizens of all colors in our country are equally respected.