Are We Too Polite to Tell Our Children the Truth?

It’s not a secret. The roots of Memorial Day lie twisted with America’s toughest problems of race and region. But my hunch is that very few Memorial Day speeches mentioned such things. In addition to the vexing problems of knowledge and politics that cause our continuing educational culture wars, I think we need to add one surprisingly boring cause.

Historian David Blight has argued convincingly that the first Memorial Day (Decoration Day back then) was part of a furious effort by African American Southerners to defend the memory of Union soldiers buried in the South. On May 1, 1865, the first Memorial Day celebration took place on Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina.

That first Memorial Day did not bring Americans together. It celebrated the victory of the Union. It celebrated the end of slavery. It used a display of African American military force to make the point to white Southerners that the old days were gone forever.

A dozen years later, of course, many of those white former Confederates had regained political power in the South. African American freedoms had been wrested away by vengeful white elites North and South. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Professor Blight tells us in Race & Reunion, North and South had come together to celebrate the heroics of white soldiers on both sides. Memorial Day had come to be a celebration of white unity, at the cost of African American rights.

What would YOU tell them?

What would YOU tell them?

Why don’t we tell any of that to our children? I think there are two obvious culprits and one surprisingly banal one.

Around these parts, local historians like to remind us that the official first Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, New York. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson decreed that Waterloo was the birthplace of the tradition. That’s a comforting story everyone can get behind. And it points out the many reasons why we don’t tell ourselves the story of the Charleston Race Track.

First, lots of us just don’t know. We might not have read Professor Blight’s book. In all fairness, we might assume that the history we get in our newspapers and from our parents is the truth.

Second, there has been significant political activism to make sure we don’t know. As Professor Blight detailed, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked hard to obscure the race-conscious history of Memorial Day. In textbooks and historical markers, in schools and in Memorial-Day speeches, activists such as Mildred Rutherford insisted that the memory of the Confederacy must be honored.

What not to know and how not to know it...

What not to know and how not to know it…

But above and beyond ignorance and activism, there is a far more basic reason why we don’t talk much about the still-festering racial issues at the real root of Memorial Day. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, we can see the same operation at work in questions about evolution and sex education in public schools as well.

As I argue in my new book about conservative school activism in the twentieth century, conservatives have often had a very easy time vetoing ideas or methods in public-school classrooms or textbooks. Why? Because they didn’t have to disprove the ideas, they only had to insist that such ideas were controversial.

Public schools are surprisingly similar to polite dinner parties. Not because everyone’s manners are at their best, but because any topic that is perceived as controversial is taboo. Teachers will avoid it; administrators will recoil from it.

We’ve seen this over and over throughout the twentieth century, in subject after subject.

Here in scenic Binghamton, New York, for example, in 1940, school Superintendent Daniel Kelly yanked a set of history textbooks from the district’s classrooms. Why? Not because he disliked them. He told a reporter, “Personally, it’s the kind of book I want my children to have. To say it is subversive is absurd.” However, he was willing to get rid of them in order to “stop the controversy” about them.

A few years later, in 1942, an enterprising group of academics tried to determine why so few teachers taught evolution. They mailed a survey to a representative group of teachers nationwide. Overall, they found that fewer than half of America’s biology teachers taught anything close to recognizable evolutionary science. Why not? In the words of one of their respondents, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

When it comes to Memorial Day, this polite impulse to avoid controversy must be part of our loud silence about the roots of the holiday. Who wants to be the boor at the cookout who turns a sentimental get-together into a racial confrontation? Who is willing to tell the gathered Boy Scouts and VFW members that their parade is a charade, since it has its roots in the reinstitution of American racial slavery? Who is willing to tell kids in class that their long weekend is really a reminder of America’s long and continuing race war?

Such things are simply not done.

In addition to the obvious culture-war culprits of knowledge and politics, we need to remember this obvious fact: Teaching the truth is rude.

Leave a comment


  1. I never heard about the first Decoration Day until I read this blog post. I am 60. I have to wonder how much I haven’t been taught. Thanks.

  2. M

     /  May 26, 2015

    Wow. I had no idea. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Patrick

     /  May 26, 2015

    While I am as interested as the next historian in understanding the roots of our cultural practices, and have also found Blight’s book very eye-opening, isn’t it a genetic fallacy to insist that a holiday’s present meaning cannot be extricated from its original meaning? All holidays evolve over time and come to mean different things to different people. Is a secular celebration of Christmas–or Halloween–a “charade”?

    • I think we acknowledge founders and origins have a certain special weight in establishing the meaning they intended, so an honest attempt to revise that meaning will admit that’s what it is. When this is not admitted and revision aims at erasing and sanitizing the past it’s an ideological power play that uses lies and forms of violence to have its way.

    • @ Patrick: Great point. To stretch it a little, isn’t there a certain element of academic snobbery involved in my post? Could we say that academic historians–at some level at least–like to wave their superior knowledge in people’s faces? If it doesn’t really matter, then what is the point besides a demonstration of superiority?
      @ Dan: I think this would be my first line of self-defense for the ideas I expressed in the post. In the case of Memorial Day, the memory is not merely evolved from its earlier roots. It has been intentionally changed, white-washed of its racial implications. It’s not a value-neutral change over time, but a change that hurt African American claims to citizenship after the war. Hurt them on purpose. To take a different example, I still get my knickers in a bunch when I think of the Mel Gibson Patriot movie. It’s no spoiler to talk about an enslaved African American character who is fighting alongside Gibson’s character, a patriot from South Carolina. When someone asks him why he is fighting, he says it is for freedom. Historically, that is just backwards. After Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, most enslaved people who wanted to fight for freedom would fight with the British, not the patriots.
      I don’t think this is what Patrick was saying, really, but to me it includes a similar idea. Is it just academic show-offery to point out this enormous historical inaccuracy? I don’t think so. I think it tells us something about the ways Americans want to remember their history. We don’t like to think of the fact–though there’s absolutely nothing contested or controversial about it–that the South Carolina white patriots were fighting to preserve a slave society. Does it matter? I think it does. I think we need to love our country without skirting past its historical problems and moral failings. When it comes to teaching young people, I think we need to help them cope from a fairly young age with such issues. Otherwise, when they get to college or when they read Howard Zinn for the first time, they are likely to feel they’ve been lied to all along.

    • Patrick

       /  May 26, 2015

      I don’t think it’s academic snobbery at all to want everyone to know as much about the past as possible. I think historians like David Blight and that Adam Laats guy are doing great, really important work. I do, however, think it may possibly be snobbish to suggest that the contemporary American celebration of Memorial Day is necessarily tainted because, well, we know what those people are really celebrating, even if they (poor ignorant masses) think they are celebrating something totally different.

      If I may share a personal anecdote about my religious upbringing (since that’s what we do down here in the comments section): growing up, we didn’t celebrate Christmas in part because it allegedly had roots in a pagan celebration of Saturnalia (i.e. If it had its origins in paganism, the argument went, we would be participating in paganism to celebrate it as a religious holiday today (even if we didn’t realize it). Looking back, well, that’s just really silly.

      The situations aren’t analogous, of course, but I’d no sooner accuse a Christian of worshipping Saturnalia on December 25th than label contemporary American Memorial Day celebrants as implicitly participating in the unfortunate racist turn of events that shifted the meaning of the holiday some generations ago.

      Can’t we be made aware of our true, sordid history without being made to believe that we are accidentally participating in it?

      • I certainly don’t blame anyone for celebrating the sacrifices made by military men and women. And I don’t think you’re accusing me of that. I take your point to be a powerful one, something akin to what judges ask about the Constitution. Is it a “living document?” Or do we need to read it with a “strict construction?” In other words, if Memorial Day was founded as one thing, why does it matter if it has morphed into something else? I think that’s a good question, akin to what Praj Kulkarni asks about teaching evolution. I guess I’m asking a broader question: can we teach history–both in and out of schools–in all its complexity? I don’t think we need to focus on “sordid” notions in order to make our history true. But if we leave them out entirely, we’re doing something worse than just spreading watered-down myths. Smiley-face history leaves people (young and old) with a misleading sense of what our society really is. To return to the dinner-table analogy, it is as if twenty percent of the family was not allowed to eat at the table with us, and no one dared to talk about it.

      • This is an astonishing statement to me Patrick — especially since you identify as an Evangelical:

        Can’t we be made aware of our true, sordid history without being made to believe that we are accidentally participating in it?

        Isn’t the question of our own moral responsibility and participation in history central? I would say it’s uncontroversial to point to the Old Testament as responding to your question with a resounding “No!” When Christians have tried to make the New Testament reject that negative (a project the later OT prophets actually initiated) they have made it a utopian political ideology. History is a burden only the ignorant don’t carry, but they still suffer under it.

        I would even go as far as disagreeing with Adam and saying we absolutely must not accept “celebrating the sacrifices made by military men and women.” Sacrifice is sacralized, licit killing or “good” and “sacred violence” — a term and concept from the ancient near east. Do we really sanction the killing and the personal costs paid by those who do it or support it in every war or undeclared warlike conflict the US enters into? I certainly do not.

      • Patrick

         /  May 27, 2015

        @Adam: Yes, I understand your point, and think it’s a good one. I had not considered the relation to the “living Constitution” idea, but I think that’s an interesting analogy to pursue.

        @Dan: After I typed that sentence I realized it could have been more precise and better qualified, since I intended it only in relation to the particular context of my post–not as a proverb. You’re absolutely right that we all participate in history, and as an evangelical I definitely believe that individuals share in a collective moral responsibility for the society around them. I appreciate how you put it: “History is a burden only the ignorant don’t carry, but they still suffer under it.”

        And yet, the Old Testament also offers the possibility of national repentance. One generation of Israelites may have been unfaithful, but the next may then turn from the idolatry and injustice of their fathers and receive God’s forgiveness. Thus, although the latter generation lives within in the cultural context set by the former, and although they may continue to suffer some of the consequences of their parents and ancestors, they still experience the possibility of genuine change. When speaking to such people, the prophets and psalmists tend to say, “Remember the sins of your fathers and don’t repeat them,” not “You share your fathers’ guilt no matter what.” (This, as a side note, is one of my main critiques of many liberals today: they believe in guilt, but not in grace. Listening to them, it seems that we will have to forever atone for the sins of our ancestors, yet without redemption.)

        All of this is of course one the complexities inherent in the study of history: how does our historical/cultural context inform our understanding of the meaning of peoples’ actions without causing us to overlook very real discontinuities that exist between these individuals and the context by which we are interpreting them?

      • There has never been anything like “national repentance” for slavery, segregation, or the genocide of native people for that matter. We pound on countries like Japan and Turkey to admit their atrocities while southern states fly confederate flags over government buildings. Similarly the Old Testament idea of national repentance is and is not a repristination. I am reminded of Corey Robbin’s recent anecdote in The Nation about Hermann Cohen telling Franz Rosenzweig “those guys [Zionists] want to be happy.” Robbin points out how Gershom Scholem (himself a Zionist) says in his memoir that Cohen’s is “the most profound remark ever uttered about Zionism by an opponent of this movement.” Robbin: “The Jew cannot be at ease in Zion; should he find that ease, should this remnant ever let up on itself, he and they will find their world destroyed.” It’s this radical moral responsibility that I was hinting at before. (Robbin goes on to talk about how hatred of the burden of this responsibility explains anti-semitism and Christianity compromising its core message.)

        If we can define guilt as (typically denied or unaccepted) responsibility for injustice, then I think this is very different from responsibility for the consequences of the injustice. I don’t think anybody today can be said to be “guilty” for slavery if they have not participated in it, yet everyone feels the consequences of it as a past and present reality. What we have responsibility for today are the consequences and continuations of older injustices. It isn’t cleaning up someone else’s mess; it’s our mess, and refusing to take responsibility for it becomes a new injustice for which we are guilty.

        If you are simply concerned with the limits of a people’s moral responsibility, I think that is a bad way to present history that historians generally won’t be comfortable doing. That is not even what the idea of financial reparations for past injustices like slavery imply, as a legal possibility. People who complain that someone is saying they are guilty today for slavery over 150 years ago seem motivated to deny responsibility for present problems by disavowing any connection to their supposed historic causes. “Slave reparations” have become the basis for imagining a bogus kind of blood libel (a real anti-semitic myth) that’s being laid on white Americans and Europeans for slavery and colonialism. There’s definitely a guilty conscience at work there, but I think that has to do with the refusal to address today’s consequences of past injustices.

  4. David Long

     /  May 26, 2015

    You’re self deprecating when not called for. When one points out the historic roots of Thanksgiving, and the very willful play of the poultry industry to diversify our tastes, and eventual sentimental attachment to turkeys on the fourth Thursday of November, I was deflated briefly (for deep Thanksgiving related sentimental reasons–I used to cook professionally, and its my favorite holiday). I got over it quick, learned this, and moved on.
    I also found your analysis compelling for the clever dinner table conversation metaphorical choice. The polite table metaphor is strong. Nicely played Laats. The play gets stronger when we throw teachers into the culture war intersection via evolution, climate change, GMOs, vaccination, etc. and ask them to host a high-stakes testing dinner party. Wait….who crapped in the punch bowl?

  5. Blight has back peddled a bit on this story. In the NY Times of May 26, 2012, he admitted that he has no evidence that this cemetery dedication had anything to do with the founding of the holiday. He now says he’s more interested in the meaning conveyed rather than who was first.

    He’s an award winning scholar and I’m a nobody but, I did research and co-author the book “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America” to explain the true history of the holiday. Neither my co-author nor me are southerners but the uncomfortable truth is that the holiday was created by Confederate sympathizers. After a few years, it was embraced by northerners. Here’s a post I put on the Zinnedproject webpage. If you’re not interested in the more than 400 citations in the book, I’ve just saved you twenty bucks. Here’s my post:

    People have been decorating graves with flowers for thousands of years. The first proposal for an annual holiday to commemorate the dead of the Civil War came from the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, GA. The proposal was widely published in newspapers throughout the country. The April 12, 1866 New York Times mentioned the preparations taking place across the south.

    The holiday was widely observed on April 26, 1866. The observance was reported in the Georgia cities of Atlanta, Augusta, Americus, Macon and Columbus. It was also reported to have occurred in Montgomery, AL; Memphis, TN; Lexington, KY and many smaller towns and villages of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

    Columbus, MS decorated a day early. likely due to the 25th being mistakenly reported in several newspapers. Other cities in south chose different days. Richmond, VA chose May 10 and Petersburg, VA chose June 9 in response to the call of the Ladies Memorial Association.

    John A. Logan spoke at a July 4, 1866 event where he mentioned “traitors in the south” decorating graves with flowers. He was well aware of the news reports of the observances. On May 8, 1866 the Baltimore Sun first used the term “memorial day” in describing the tribute proposed by the “a lady of Columbus, Georgia”

    The event in Charleston, SC on May 1, 1865 was basically the same as the Gettysburg, PA event of November 19, 1863 that gave us the Gettysburg Address. Both were cemetery dedications. They are one time events and not meant to be repeated. David Blight confessed in the May 26, 2012 New York Times that he has no evidence that the Charleston event led to Logan’s call for a national holiday. The evidence does, however, show that Logan responded to the events inspired by the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, GA.

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