With the passing of Memorial Day, it’s fitting that we take time to reflect on the sacrifices of our service men and women who gave their lives on behalf of our country. Memorial Day is important because we honor not simply the military personnel who have served in our armed forces, but specifically those who have given their lives in order to preserve our way of life.
The holiday honors all of our war veterans from the Revolutionary War through the War for Iraqi Freedom. Regardless of the circumstances under which our country went to war, there is no question that our slain veterans should be celebrated for answering the call to duty. Every war fought by the United States was fought within the context of a specific time, and often it is only in hindsight that we see that the reasons for which the country fought were not always right. Because of this, some American conflicts evoke different sentiments, depending on the reasons for which our country became involved.
Differing feelings over the Civil War have influenced whether communities have chosen to memorialize veterans from that war. In South Carolina, and several other states of the old Confederacy, it’s not uncommon to find monuments celebrating “defenders of the Confederacy” and their efforts against “Northern aggression.” South Carolina has gone so far as to enact a state law, making the removal of these monuments extremely difficult. As the voting electorate in many southern cities have become increasingly African-American, some municipalities have revisited whether they want to venerate those Southern soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
New Orleans has taken the controversial step of removing Confederate monuments from positions of honor, unleashing torrents of anger and condemnation from different parts of that community. The debate is ongoing over whether or not such removal dishonors the memory of those war veterans and improperly sanitizes history to preserve the sensibilities of a few.
To the extent that we in Charleston have taken a completely different approach than New Orleans, there’s a clear political dynamic at work. In Charleston, our government representatives operate in a very conservative state, which until recently vigorously debated whether the Confederate flag should have been removed from a position of prominence near the statehouse. In New Orleans, a largely African-American electorate possess an entirely different mindset, and unfettered by state laws, sees justice in removing monuments which honor the Confederacy.
Any community can decide whom it chooses to venerate. We have a statue and several streets honoring John C. Calhoun here in Charleston, while Yale University in Connecticut recently voted to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college. At the time most Confederate memorials were erected, those who were most likely to object were politically voiceless. It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights movement that much thought, if any was given to how the descendants of former slaves might feel about honoring fallen Confederate soldiers.
Charleston may never take the ultimate step of actually removing Confederate memorials from places of reverence, but municipalities within the state should have that option. In a state that extols the virtues of local rule, it makes sense to do away with the state law that bans the removal of Confederate memorials, even though many might disagree with what those municipalities decide. Were we to do so, many towns would likely take the step of following New Orleans, and place Confederate memorials where they properly belong — in a museum.
Memorial Day gives us not only the opportunity to remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, but also to reflect on the reasons why we honor those who have fallen. Local communities should have the option of not memorializing those who fought for a cause which the community does not support.
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