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Remember who we honor on this 150th Memorial Day

Remember who we honor on this 150th Memorial Day
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BBQs, pool parties, hot dogs and mini American-flag-affixed to toothpicks; these are the usual images that come to mind when one thinks of Memorial Day.

This authentically American holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May is usually thought of as the unofficial kick-off to summer and commemorated with food, family and fun. Yet, while many Americans enjoy these celebrations, few know the history behind the holiday.

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Memorial Day holiday, making it the perfect time to pause and consider why we recognize this day each year. A look back at 150 years of history is a good place to start. Like many traditions that began long ago, the details of Memorial Day’s origins are a bit muddy, but we know it began shortly after the end of the Civil War.

 

Ending in 1865, the Civil War claimed more American lives than any other war in our history. With so many fallen soldiers, America’s first national cemeteries were established to lay these men to rest. In cities and towns across the country, loved ones of the fallen began paying tribute at their graves each spring, laying flowers, saying prayers and honoring their sacrifice.

By the spring of 1868, General John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance, stating:

“The 30th of May 1868, [is for] decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

The holiday was originally deemed "Decoration Day," and the first official commemoration of the day was hosted at Arlington National Cemetery. For decades, communities gathered to remember those who had fallen in the Civil War.

They would tend to the cemeteries of these deceased veterans and leave flowers dotting the graves of loved ones — a touch of beauty to contrast the somber ambiance. This remembrance of the Civil War persisted until the World War I, when once more the nation was struck by the massive loss of brave young Americans.

It became apparent that Memorial Day should honor all who had passed away in defense of our flag, from the American Revolution onward. Several decades later, in 1968, the federal government established Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday of May, a move that established the three-day weekend that we now enjoy, while maintaining the decorum of the melancholy holiday.

Throughout its 150-year history, many aspects of Memorial Day have changed: the date, the name and who we commemorate. Yet, one particularly charming Memorial Day tradition has remained constant: the practice of marking the day’s festivities with a parade.

Throughout the country, year in and year out, towns big and small unite to host parades in homage of their veterans. While many towns claim the distinction of hosting the first Memorial Day parade, Doylestown, Penn. boasts the longest running annual parade in history, having first organized one in 1868.

Today, the largest parade exists in Washington, D.C. The National Memorial Day Parade, which proceeds down Constitution Avenue. It is a moving timeline of American military history.

Government officials, dignitaries and hundreds of thousands of civilians gather on the national mall to observe the parade, which features living veterans as far back as World War II, current military, historical re-enactors of wars past, marching bands from across the country, celebrities and more.

This year’s celebration is especially significant, as it marks so many important dates in America’s military history. In addition to this year being the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day, it also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I, and the ongoing 75th and 50th anniversaries of World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively.

The parade this year will also pay special tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the men who broke racial barriers to become the military’s first African-American pilots, marking the 75th anniversary of their first combat mission in the spring of 1943.

Amid the Second World War, they flew valiantly into the heart of Europe and helped turn the tide against the Axis powers, fighting for a country that still very much discriminated against them. For over a century, Memorial Day has been a time for family, friends and remembrance.

In an era when political, social and cultural divisions threaten to tear apart the fabric of our nation, this day is the perfect opportunity to come together as one and rally around a noble cause: honoring those who gave their lives in pursuit of our freedom and prosperity.

Tim Holbert is senior vice president and executive director of the American Veterans Center, which organizes and sponsors the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.