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.
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.
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.