Remembering Memorial Day

Strained budgets have been the most cited reason in past cancellations of Memorial Day events, but the truth is it’s fading as an American holiday. A sad fact when you remember the history of its placement on the U.S. calendar.

Maj. Gen. John A. Logan was most responsible for founding the official holiday following the Civil War, with his issuance of General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, establishing May 30 as Decoration Day. There was resistance at first, as Southern states refused to officially acknowledge the holiday. The Confederate Memorial authorized by President William H. Taft and the efforts of President William McKinley to tend to the Confederate dead at national cemeteries illustrated an American reconciliation with its past. So after World War I, May 30 evolved beyond a day of tribute to Union soldiers.

What’s unique about Decoration Day is that the order issued by Logan applied to the military only. It had no official force of law, but American citizens kept it without congressional or government decree for decades. After World War I, University of Georgia professor Moina Michael created the idea of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day and selling silk ones to raise money to assist disabled veterans. It made red poppies a national symbol of remembrance for those who died in the line of duty — earning her a place on a 1948 U.S. postage stamp.

It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress made Decoration Day into an official holiday called Memorial Day, and then moved it from May 30 to the last Monday in May as a three-day federal holiday. When it went into effect in 1971, the holiday fell into decline. Its meaning in the American conversation soon became lost in the weekend concept. It was touted by the media as the unofficial start of summer, a time for sporting events or retail sales.

The move toppled the most essential U.S. holiday from its pedestal. Memorial Day was a date meant to stand above all others on the American patriotic calendar. It is a day when the U.S. flag is flown at half-mast in the morning and raised to full staff at noon. Memorial Day commemorates the citizens who died while wearing those uniforms or in service to this nation’s existence. From the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan, it honors the airmen, soldiers and sailors in the U.S. armed forces, the men and women in our intelligence agencies, the victims of Fort Hood, Texas, and others who died protecting this nation.

There has been a movement since to restore the holiday to its original May 30 designation. In January 1999, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii) introduced SB 189 to restore Memorial Day to its traditional date. That bill was followed by then-Rep. Jim Gibbons (R–Nev.) introduction of HR 1474 in the House two months later. Both bills were referred to committees and haven’t been seen since. Inouye, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, reintroduced the bill as late as 2007 to see it once again kicked into committee.

This holiday’s stature regained some ground in post-9 /11 America. In 2004, after more than 60 years of neglect, a National Memorial Day Parade was organized and held in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the dedication of the World War II Memorial. The American Veterans Center and Music Celebrations International have since organized it into a national event. Still, few service members who fought and died for this nation are buried in Arlington National Cemetery or in the Washington metro area. Their graves are found in every state and on every continent.

To paraphrase former House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, those brave men and women’s lives are what make all politics local. The small ceremonies and parades in the hometowns of those servicemen and women are just as important. Their deaths are more than maudlin patriotic stories. They represent the hard realities of founding and keeping a nation. Our obligation is to remember them on a proper holiday with the reverence they deserve.

Ed Hooper, an author and military affairs reporter from Knoxville, Tenn., writes for the History News Service.

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