The city of Yonkers, NY, has canceled its Memorial Day parade this year. What’s the news in this? It’s the cause cited by city officials—not lack of funds, of parade participants or of budget, but simply that no one is showing up to see the parade any more, a story that’s 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 Major General John A. Logan issued his General Order 11, establishing May 30 as Decoration Day at national cemeteries to honor soldiers who died while serving. Gen. Logan’s order spoke only to honoring Union soldiers’ sacrifices. Former Confederate states originally refused to acknowledge Decoration Day, and families of Confederate soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery were not even permitted to visit the gravesites of their relatives after the Civil War.
President McKinley’s order thirty years later to exhume and re-inter scattered Confederate remains in the Washington, D.C. area in a special section of Arlington—and President 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 transformed May 30 into an American holiday honoring all who have ever died in service to the United States.
What’s unique about Decoration Day is that the order issued by Gen. 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, a 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, earning her a 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 national 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 revered dates on the American patriotic calendar—a day when the U.S. flag is flown at half staff in the morning and then raised at noon.
Since the 1970s, there have been several grassroots movements among veterans’ organizations to restore the holiday to its original May 30 designation. In 1999, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D—Hawaii) introduced such a bill. That bill was followed by a similar bill introduced in the House two months later by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R—Nevada). Both bills were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform and haven’t been seen since. Senator Inouye, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, reintroduced the bill in 2007, only to see it once again vanish in committee.
This holiday’s stature did regain ground after the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil. In 2004, after more than sixty 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, most who died on the battlefield are buried elsewhere.
The small ceremonies and parades in the hometowns of those servicemen and women are just as important. Their sacrifice is more than a maudlin patriotic story. Our obligation is to remember them on a proper holiday with the reverence they deserve.
Ed Hooper is an author and military affairs reporter from Knoxville, Tenn. He is a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article. This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public’s understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.