reimagining Memorial Day.

25 May

Reimagining Memorial Day
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 25, 2014

Origin stories are important. They are a way to frame a character, to add depth to a hero, or just to explain why we do something. Take the song we sang a few minutes ago as an example. “We’ll Build a Land” used to be my favorite song in our hymnal, until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Ever since then, I have had a hard time singing it. It has the ring of empire-building. Come, let us impose our values on these people and this land because we are anointed by God.

This song’s origin story is what saves it and makes it possible for us to sing it occasionally, provided we explain where it came from. Barbara Zanotti, a peace activist, wrote this hymn by adapting words from the Hebrew scriptures Isaiah and Amos. And the final lines of the hymn “Let justice roll down like waters and peace like an everflowing stream” echo those carved on Martin Luther King’s tombstone. It is a song not about conquering, but about creating the beloved community. The origin story allows us see that a song that, at first glance might be seem to be about so much that we stand against, in fact has its roots in civil activism and the creation of justice.

More apropos to today, look at the origin of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This song, which our Orchestra opened with this morning, is one of the most popular patriotic songs of all time. It is often performed at the funerals of American soldiers and statesmen, presidential nominating conventions and inaugurations and more.

The song originated during the Civil War. On November 17, 1861, Julia Ward Howe, who, by the way, was a Unitarian, traveled with her husband, Samuel, then director of the Army’s Sanitary Commission, to inspect a Union camp outside Washington, DC. While there, she took notice of a particularly catchy marching song that the troops were fond of singing, called “John Brown’s Body” “His soul is marching on!” the Union soldiers sung in refrain

The song memorializes John Brown, the radical abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry that killed fourteen men. Brown became a Union hero, praised by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and even the French novelist Victor Hugo. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was one of Brown’s principle financiers. Parker is also the origin of the famous Martin Luther King line “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Howe rewrote the song’s lyrics at the urging of a friend, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, who was part of her traveling party. You may recall his name, as 30 years prior to that trip he was the minister of our church! Clarke suggested How write some good words for such a stirring tune, something higher-minded, something grander and more poetic, not so coarse.

Howe’s solution was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The new lyrics carry the same rah-rah sentiment as the old song, with the added weight of biblical references. She penned the new lyrics overnight, and they were published two and a half months later, on the front page of the February 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly.

I can’t help but think that, were Howe alive today, and were the giggling-type, she could not help but giggle that this song, set to a Union tune and glorifying the leader of a slave revolt, is now beloved and sung in even the most staunchly conservative Southern states.

Origin stories matter. This leads one to wonder about the origin of Memorial Day.

There is a photo making the rounds on facebook.


The text that goes along with it says:

“Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.”

The singing included songs such as “John Brown’s Body” and “The Star Spangled Banner” – the pieces our orchestra is playing this morning.

As most of us have learned the hard way, just because something is circulating on the internet does not mean it is true. So is this story accurate? My favorite fact checker for this kind of thing,, says it is mixed. On the one hand, these events did happen. On the other, there is dispute as to whether this is the origin of Memorial Day. Well, there would be a dispute, wouldn’t there? I mean, what white male in power wants to attribute such a powerful day to a bunch of former slaves?

Let me read to you from a 2009 Time magazine article. Laura Fitzpatrick writes:

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, conjuring images of picnics, barbecues or just a lazy day off. But originally the holiday was charged with deeper meaning — and with controversy.
The exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, with at least five towns claiming to have given birth to the holiday sometime near the end of the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight places the first Memorial Day in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. Digging up the soldiers’ mass grave, they interred the bodies in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them and erected an archway over the entrance bearing the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters’ Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of roses. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children’s choir sing spirituals…While the story is largely forgotten today, some historians consider the gathering the first Memorial Day.

Despite scattered celebrations in small towns, it took three more years for the holiday to become widely observed. In a proclamation, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organization of former soldiers and sailors — dubbed May 30, 1868, Decoration Day, which was “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” On Decoration Day that year, General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Afterward, 5,000 observers adorned the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers entombed at the cemetery.

At the outset, Memorial Day was so closely linked with the Union cause that many Southern states refused to celebrate it. They acquiesced only after World War I, when the holiday was expanded beyond honoring fallen Civil War soldiers to recognizing Americans who died fighting in all wars. It was also renamed Memorial Day. Some critics say that by making the holiday more inclusive, however, the original focus — on, as Frederick Douglass put it, the moral clash between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization” — has been lost. Most Southern states still recognize Confederate Memorial Day as an official holiday, and many celebrate it on the June birthday of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. But Texas, for one, observes the holiday on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19 — which also happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day…

With the National Holiday Act of 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. But critics say guaranteeing that the holiday is part of a three-day weekend promotes relaxation instead of stressing the holiday’s true meaning. In 1989, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii introduced a bill to move the holiday back to the fixed date of May 30. He has reintroduced it in every Congress since then — with no success…”

So here we are, today, in Louisville, KY. A town that has a blend of the best of Midwestern and Southern qualities, in a state that one minute will pass a highly restrictive law and the next a progressive one. Those of us who are progressive take pride that Kentucky was a Union state, but that was not originally the case. Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War – a state where the war was fought over the dining-room table, with brothers fighting against brothers. At the beginning of the war, Kentucky was neutral, but after the Confederate army invaded, the state petitioned the Union for assistance, and thereafter became solidly under Union control. Now, as you may recall, the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves really only freed the SOUTHERN slaves – those in Confederate states. So this meant that there was still legal slavery for a few months in Kentucky until the 13th amendment was ratified in December 1965 (aside: KY did not ratify the 13th amendment until 1976!!)

So how does this origin story for Memorial Day impact us, right here, today? I would invite us, just for right now, just today, to expand those who we honor. Let us look at that first Memorial Day, and honor all those who have sacrificed so much in search of justice. Let us take a piece of today to remember those Union soldiers who worked to free the country of slavery, and let us take a moment to remember others who have sacrificed their lives in search of justice.

In the Civil Rights movement, let us remember people such as George Washington Lee, an African American civil rights leader, minister, and entrepreneur who was head of the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was assassinated in 1955.

Let us remember Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist from Mississippi. After returning from overseas military service in World War II and completing his secondary education, Evers became active in the civil rights movement until he was assassinated in 1963 by a member of the White Citizens’ Council.

Let us remember James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, the three civil rights workers who were murdered during Freedom Summer 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Let us remember Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was killed in 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama while working on the civil rights movement in Lowndes County.

Let us remember Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed civil rights protestor who was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965. His death inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Let us remember the Unitarian Universalist Minister James Reeb,who was beaten severely by white segregationists and died of head injuries two days later in the hospital in Selma, AL where he had been marching for civil rights in 1965.

Let us remember Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan, who heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr and travelled from Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan, while driving civil rights workers back from Montgomery to Selma in 1965.

Let us remember Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. He was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans until he was assassinated in 1965.

And let us remember Martin Luther King, Jr, pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the Civil Rights Movement until he was assassinated in 1968.

There are many  areas of life in which we need justice, so let us also today honor and remember:

Frank H. Little, an American labor leader who was lynched in 1917 in Butte, Montana, for his union and anti-war activities. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World organizing miners, lumberjacks, and oil field workers.

Let us remember Alice Cosu, a suffragette who suffered a heart attack during the “Night of Terror” in 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to brutally beat and “teach a lesson” to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote.

Let us remember Harry Simms, a Jewish American labor leader who was sent by the National Miners Union to Harlan County, Kentucky during the Harlan County War to organize the mine workers there. He was shot in 1932 near Brush Creek in Knox County by a sheriff’s deputy who also worked as a mine guard for the local coal company.

Let us remember Pete Pantowas, a longshoreman and union activist who was executed in 1939 by the mob for attempting to revolt against union leadership.

Let us remember Harvey Milk, the American politician who became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This weekend, the Harvey Milk stamp was dedicated at the white house. Less than a year after he took office, he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on November 27, 1978.

Let us remember Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American anti-discrimination activist who was killed in a bombing as he opened the door of his office in Santa Ana, California in 1985.

These people, and many more, too many to list – both armed forces and civilians, sacrificed their lives to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. They died working to turn our our country into a land where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream. Let us remember them today, in honor of that first Memorial Day.

2 Responses to “reimagining Memorial Day.”

  1. Gail Helinger May 31, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Appreciation. Respect. Awe of vast knowledge and truth. Far out and right on! You are the best.

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