Memorial Day is a day set aside for reflection, a day meant for us to honor our fallen dead.
The meaning of Memorial Day has changed a great deal since it was founded. At its inception, the day was set aside to honor the African-American soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, both our soldiers who were born-free, as well as those who were former slaves; men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who gave everything they had to keep the United States of America whole, and to make it a free nation.
Memorial Day was established to honor those who died for an America which they only dreamed could exist. They died for these United States, for a vision of it that they prayed for, but was not yet real; they got something different, they got this reality, an America that is still in a state of becoming, one that is more or less just, depending on where you are born, what color your skin is, what class you belong to.
Those men and women died for us, for good or ill, they died for us. They died for promises that went un-realized, they died for a dream deferred, as our poet Langston Hughes wrote of the African-American experience in his poem Harlem(1) :
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
We have yet to repay those good people, we have yet to fulfill their hopes for the America they dreamt of; America, daughter of liberty, America the true and good, America the arbiter of justice, an America that could be if we pursue the dream of her, and exercise the will to make it so.
Now, we honor our dead on this day; our soldiers and sailors and airmen, our police and firefighters; we honor them.
We are too frequently called upon to honor children, children who stand in the way of gunfire to protect their classmates, who had to pay for it with their lives.
We must honor them and their sacrifice, all of them who died upholding our most cherished values, we honor them in recognition of the fact that we are one people descended from many nationalities and ethnicities, and that we each come into the world with the absolute right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that all other rights are subordinate to these.
This year we are called upon to honor all of our citizens who have spent their lives, giving it to public service. We honor our teachers and the good works of our ordinary citizens, of our friends and neighbors, we honor the sacrifice of everyone, known and unknown, and those yet to come.
We must honor the 100,000 Amricans and more who have perished from a deadly coronavirus we call COVID-19, and we must honor the doctors and nurses, the EMTs and paramedics, the orderlies and custodians who are charged to risk their lives and give their lives to care for them.
On this day of all days, do not make the mistake of thinking that it is our service women and men who keep us free.
It has been at least sixty years since America faced an “existential” threat from a foreign power.
We are not kept free through armed conflict.
We do not face such an existential threat from beyond our borders and shores right now; not from Iran, not from North Korea, not from Russia, not from China or anywhere.
The real threat we face is from ourselves, we face an existential threat of ignorance, short-sightedness and greed.
We stand in our own way; we, and we alone who can protect us from ourselves.
Our apathy and selfishness, our prejudice and hatred, our gluttony and cowardice, these are the most dangerous forces aligned against us, these are the forces that threaten our freedom. They are more deadly than any other worldly power, these are the forces which have gone unchecked by our elected representatives, even encouraged by our President and his criminal regime that are killing our fellow Americans in numbers greater than the last five decades of armed conflict.
It is shameful and terrifying.
To honor our fallen dead, you must do your part to keep us free. You must participate in our democracy.
Vote, stay informed, organize, build alliances and collaborate.
Our collective failure as citizens of the Unites States has allowed a criminal, autocratic, demagogue to hold power in the White House, allowed the Supreme Court to state that corporations are to be treated as people, and money regarded as free speech, while those same justices have told ordinary American’s that their right to free speech does not include the right to be heard, and that our right to vote does not include the guarantee that our votes will be counted.
This rank cynicism is more dangerous to our lives and freedom than any rag tag group of militants half way around the world, more dangerous than immigrants looking for a better life on our side of the border we share, people who are only seeking the same thing as my own forebears did when they came here a little over a hundred years ago.
Honor our fallen dead. Not with cards and flowers and barbeques (but do those things because they are good), honor them by standing up to racism and bigotry, to religious zealotry and corporate greed, to scientific ignorance and xenophobia, to corruption in our public officials in our highest offices, and to the notion that the right to keep and bear arms does not include our responsibility to regulate them.
Honor them by participating in public discourse. Do not lose heart, and do not give up.
Honor them by wearing a face mask when you go out in public, by practicing social distancing, and by supporting your neighbors in the weeks and months and years ahead, as we rebuild our country in the hopes of achieving the dream that is still being deferred.
Stand up, and be counted!
We must rebuild America and reform our institutions; we must do this for the sake of all Americans and all future generations.
We must take responsibility for our live and freedom.
We will have nothing to protect if we let apathy and ignorance, selfishness ad gluttony provide a vector for a virus that cannot distinguish between borders and political parties.
Honor the fallen, in this way.
Jay P. Botten, Veteran, U.S.N., Hospital Corps, 1990 – 1994
(1) Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates, Inc.