By MARSHA MERCER
Ah, Memorial Day--pools, picnics, parades, and everybody gets to weigh in on the Memorial Day controversy.
No, I don’t mean the dust-up over whether President Barack Obama should be in Washington Monday to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
His right-wing critics have fussed mightily over the president’s decision to spend the weekend in Chicago with his family. On Monday he’ll participate in a service at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., and Vice President Joe Biden will lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Other presidents – including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- missed Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington without the collapse of the Republic. To me Obama’s absence is a non-issue. I can’t see how the president dishonors fallen troops or disrespects the military by commemorating Memorial Day in Illinois.
The controversy I’m referring to is whether Obama should continue the presidential tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. His left wing critics are accusing Obama of being part of a “chain of racism stretching back to Woodrow Wilson.”
Last year, more than 60 historians and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson and former 1960s radical Bill Ayers, signed a letter asking the president to stop sending the wreath, which began when Woodrow Wilson attended the monument’s dedication in 1914. Every president since has sent a wreath, traditionally on the birthday of Jefferson Davis in June.
In 2003, then-President Bush switched delivery to Memorial Day. An erroneous report in Time magazine that Bush had reinstated delivery of the wreath caused a predictable uproar.
Last Memorial Day, Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and had a wreath delivered to the Confederate memorial. He also sent a wreath to a memorial in Washington that honors African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The White House did not comment on the anti-wreath petition.
Chuck McMichael, commander in chief of Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., reportedly sent Obama a thank-you note. Foes say sending the wreath symbolically aids and abets the “neo-Confederate agenda.” They argue that the monument, which was built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is less about honoring the dead than about legitimizing secession and glorifying the ideals of the Confederacy.
Last month, a smaller group of historians and scholars again wrote Obama, repeating their no-wreath request and asking that the federal government remove the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, the government’s equivalent of the United Way. The letter also asked that the Sons not be allowed to host events for the U.S. Army or participate in Junior ROTC programs in high schools.
Memorial Day honors all who died in the military, but it began to honor the sacrifices of the Civil War. The first National Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery was in 1868, although more than two dozen cities, some in the North but more in the South, claim they put flowers on Civil War graves before that.
Arlington National Cemetery began on 200 acres once owned by Robert E. Lee and, according to the cemetery’s Web site, “For many years following the war, the bitter feelings between North and South remained, and although hundreds of Confederate soldiers were buried at Arlington, it was considered a Union cemetery. Family members of Confederate soldiers were denied permission to decorate their loved ones' graves and in extreme cases were even denied entrance to the cemetery.”
Over the years, Congress set aside an area for the Confederate dead and later approved the Confederate memorial. In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday.
Obama was right to send a wreath to the African-American memorial if he wanted to continue the Confederate wreath tradition. Others likely will disagree, but a calm discussion of the issues will be good practice for the Civil War sesquicentennial.
To find common ground on the war’s 150th anniversary, we can start by talking about flowers.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.