Tag Archives: Memorial Day

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, snopes.com, 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.


26 May

I just finished reading the book “Thirteen Reasons Why” because my daughter had read it and I wanted to talk about it with her. Between the book, and it being Memorial Day weekend, I find myself awash with memories and with emotions.

The premise of the book is that a junior in high school has killed herself. Before she died, she recorded 13 stories that ultimately led to her suicide, and she sent the tapes to folks involved so that they might listen and learn.

Things sometimes converge in interesting ways. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was seriously depressed and became suicidal. I was lucky: unlike the girl in the book, I reached out for help and got it. I was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for teenagers for over six weeks. At my request, when I first went in, my sister circulated a rumor that I had mono. But when I got back to school I was honest with everyone who asked. It hurt too much to try to lie.

Twenty-five years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, I broke my hand in what is called a “boxer’s break” after I punched a concrete wall. It was the day before I was to be released from the hospital. I was scared. A friend of mine had gone out with his parents on a day-pass and they had gone to Washington, DC for some of the Memorial Day ceremonies. Tim came back from his day out and he was so angry – angry that those of us still inside had spent all day without a thought to the sacrifices that our veterans make so that we might have freedom. Angry that young men had died for what he felt was a country that was going to hell in a hand-basket. Angry, too, to cover up his fear and concern for his dad, because like a notably large number of us in the hospital, he came from a military family. He lost it.

I remember calling out to him through the ventilation system after lights out: It will be okay. Hang in there. Don’t do anything dangerous. It will be okay.

It wasn’t okay. He got “bagged” – put into restraints and then into the solitary room. In frustration and not able to handle my own overwhelming emotions, I punched a wall and broke my hand. I spent the night before I was to go home in pain and confusion and fear – wanting desperately to get out but not knowing if I would make it. Depression doesn’t just go away.

I did go home the next day. Memorial Day, 1988. And forever after, on Memorial Day, I remember. At least for a few minutes during the weekend, I pause and I remember. I remembering wanting it all to end. I remember Tim, and the hospital. I rub my hand where the break was and remember summer school Calculus class with a cast on my right hand. I think about how thankful I am to have gotten the help that I needed. The slow road back to health that felt like it had more steps back than forward. I am in awe at how wonderful my life has turned out – I never would have believed it.

And I pause and I remember what made Tim so frustrated. I think about all those who sacrificed so much that we might be here today. I think about their families, and my heart hurts for them. I think about the men and women who come back wounded in body and spirit and the high rate of suicide among returning soldiers. And if, on Memorial Day, I am in the pulpit, I summon my sorrow and my gratitude and I preach it.

How could I not?

Memorial Day.

13 Jun

Beyond Flanders Fields
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 27, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

History of Memorial Day

  • To honor those who died in service to our country.
  • Memorial Day was first observed on 30 May 1868
    • flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Used to be called (and elsewhere still is) Decoration Day, or Remembrance Day.
  • The red remembrance poppy has become a familiar emblem
    • “In Flanders Fields” poem
    • These poppies bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I,
    • their brilliant red color an appropriate symbol for the blood spilled in the war.
  • After World War II, Memorial Day became the more common reference for the holiday while some old-timers still called it Decoration Day.
    • 1967 Congress declared Memorial Day the official name
    • 1968, Congress moved the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May to give everyone a long weekend every year, effective in 1971.
  • Mixed results, as now it is a time of retail sales and picnics.
  • To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day,
    • “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000
    • 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”

Connect with Moment for All Ages

  • Conflicting feelings about this day – picnics or remembrance – are not new
  • Not some war long ago: Over 6000 service members have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Enduring Freedom.
  • Same tune:
    • One hand, cheer and shout, ladies turn out, bells will peal, parades, etc.
    • Other hand: where are your legs? Your arms?
  • Soldiers come back gravely wounded.
  • “IED are causing blast injuries that extend upward under the armor…Blast injuries are also producing an unprecedented burden of what orthopedists term “mangled extremities” — limbs with severe soft-tissue, bone, and often vascular injuries.”i
  • NY Times reports: “growing tide of combat veterans who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBI), or concussions, caused by powerful explosions.
    • As many as 300,000, or 20 percent, of combat veterans who regularly worked away from bases, have suffered at least one concussion, according to the latest Pentagon estimates.
    • About half the soldiers get better within hours, days or several months and require little if any medical assistance.
    • But tens of thousands of others have longer-term problems that can include, to varying degrees, persistent memory loss, headaches, mood swings, dizziness, hearing problems and light sensitivity.
    • These symptoms, which may be subtle and may not surface for weeks or months after their return, are often debilitating enough to hobble lives and livelihoods.”ii

And they come home with invisible or unknown wounds that may kill them days, months, or years later

  • TBI – traumatic brain injury is the signature injury of the war on terror – still not often recognized
  • PTSD – increasing!
    • 2004, 1 in 8 soldiers returning from Iraq had PTSD
    • 2008, 20% of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans hat Depression or PTSD
    • 2010, up to 31% returned with some mental impairment
    • increasing with multiple deployments as this war drags on and on
  • Spiritual and emotional injuries on top of the physical:
    • Moral Injury: “A moral injury occurs when a soldier’s concepts of trust and right and wrong do not survive the heat of battle.
      • This breakdown can result from a soldier’s real or perceived failure under fire—or from the failure of a commander to properly lead.
      • As a result of this moral injury, the soldier brings home the psychological habits he developed for coping with the intense stresses of combat.
      • In other words, he or she returns to civilian life hyper-vigilant and trusting no one—a difficult way to live.”
  • Depressed, PTSD, Moral Injury and much more. Often can’t live…Suicide:
    • “In fact, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by their own hand is now estimated to be greater than the number (6,460) who have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.”iii
    • At first VA denied that suicide was an epidemic.
    • Between 2004 and 2008, the Army study revealed a suicide surge of 80 percent
    • Studies now show:
      • that male veterans have a twofold increase in death by suicide over their civilian counterparts
      • female veterans are three times as likely to kill themselves as their civilian counterparts.iv
    • As of July 2011: Both the president and defense secretary will now send condolence letters to the families of troops who commit suicide in combat zones.
      • Which is nice, but does not begin to address situation
  • Trusting no one also leads to inappropriate ways of expressing anger, of trying to control, dominate, and more.
    • From 2006 to 2011 Army records show:
    • Child abuse rose 43 percent
    • Domestic violence rose 33 percent
    • Violent sex crime was up 64 percent
  • Though troops have left Iraq and an Afghanistan withdrawal is planned, the health and psychological problems will continue, and in some cases could even increase as veterans enter the civilian world

This is hard stuff! We might want to turn away. Ignore it. Go back to our picnics and our celebrations of summer.

But ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Ignoring the pain – physical, emotional and spiritual, of those who have served our country (whether we agree with the cause or not) is immoral.

War is terrible, its costs very high. And they don’t end on the battlefield – those who died in service to our country include those who have died as a result of their service.

We must find a way to do what we can so that those that we send to war, and their loved ones back home, don’t suffer any more than they have to.

Starts with not turning away. Paying attention. Taking that moment in silence to acknowledge our collective failure to care for those who we owe so much.

So let us pause, now, for a moment of silence. A moment to consider the high costs of war. After the silence, we will have a moment of prayer.

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