The City of Yonkers, New York, has canceled its Memorial Day Parade this year. What's the news in this? The cause cited by city officials. It wasn't lack of funds, of parade participants or of budget. It was simply that no one is showing up is to see the parade anymore - a story that is repeating itself in cities across the nation. Strained budgets have been the most cited reason for past cancellations of Memorial Day events. But the truth is that the observance is fading as an American holiday, a sad fact when you remember the history of its placement on the U.S. calendar.
It got there in 1868 when U.S. Major General John A. Logan issued his General Order Number 11 establishing May 30th as Decoration Day at national cemeteries to honor soldiers who died in service. Former Confederate states originally refused to acknowledge Decoration Day. General Logan's order only spoke to honoring Union soldiers' sacrifices. Families of Confederate soldiers buried in Arlington were not even permitted to visit the grave sites of their relatives after the Civil War. President William McKinley's order 30 years later to exhume and re-inter scattered Confederate remains in the Washington, DC area to a special section of Arlington National Cemetery and President William Taft's later authorization of a Confederate Memorial to be placed there finally ended this division. The reconciliation brought about by these two presidents nationally evolved May 30th into an America holiday honoring all who have ever died in service to the U.S.
What's unique about Decoration Day is that the order issued by General Logan applied only to national cemeteries. It had no official force of law elsewhere, but American citizens marked the day without congressional or government decree for decades. In the wake of 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. Her efforts made red poppies a national symbol of remembrance for those who died in the line of duty, thus earning her place on a 1948 U.S. postage stamp.
It wasn't until 1968 that Congress made Decoration Day an official U.S. holiday called Memorial Day and then moved its observance to the last Monday in the month to create a three-day holiday weekend. When the new federal calendar went into effect in 1971, the holiday fell into decline. Its meaning in the American conversation soon became lost. The Memorial Day weekend was touted by the media as the unofficial start of summer, a time to hold sporting events or for retailers to host special sales.
The move toppled the U.S. holiday from its pedestal. Memorial Day commemorates the men and women killed on the battlefield or in service to this nation's existence. It was meant to be one of the most reverent dates on the American patriotic calendar - a day when the U.S. flag is flown at half-mast in the morning and then raised to full staff at noon.
Since the 1970s, there have been several grassroots movements among veterans' organizations to restore the holiday to its original May 30th designation. In 1999, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D - Hawaii) introduced a bill to restore Memorial Day to its traditional date. That bill was followed by then-Congressman Jim Gibbons (R - Nevada) introduction of a bill in the House two months later. Both bills were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform and haven't been seen since their introduction. Senator Inouye, who is 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 did regain ground after the 2001 terrorist attacks on America soil. In 2004 after more than 60 years of neglect, a National Memorial Day Parade was organized 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 an annual event. Still, few service members who fought and died on the battlefield are buried in Arlington National Cemetery or in the Washington, D.C. metro area.
The small ceremonies and parades in the hometowns of those servicemen and women, the intelligence agents and the military victims of Fort Hood are just as important. Their deaths are more than maudlin patriotic stories. Our obligation is to remember them on a proper holiday with the reverence they deserve.