Posted in history, politics, Uncategorized

In case anyone thought it was about furniture sales and barbecues…

Memorial Day is a unique moment to honor a very specific type of Americans: those who have died, either in the service of our nation or after a career of military duty. Abraham Lincoln would characterize them, three years before the concept of Memorial Day came about, on a battlefield in northern Pennsylvania where sixty thousand Americans had been killed, as “these honored dead,” emphasizing that we must double our commitment to the “cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

The Day was first formally recognized in 1866, when Waterloo NY started a national trend of lowering flags to half staff, draping the village in black to represent mourning, and decorating the graves of soldiers lost during the War. This energy was propelled both by living veterans and loved ones of the dead.

Originally in the first week of May, the day was pushed back to later in the month as more communities began to acknowledge a day to memorialize their dead, likely to allow for more flowers to bloom before they were plucked by loved ones to place upon graves.

It’s unfair to stratify the impact of American military engagements by the number of deaths; each time the American military is involved in combat, lives of service members are in danger and, hopefully, the purpose is worthy of placing those lives in danger. However, the emphasis on the number of Americans killed in each war reminds us that although the Civil War is a far distant moment in history and no longer in living memory, it was, by far, the most quantifiable carnage in American history.

Tabulating data of wartime casualties will yield different figures depending on certain factors: the number of people killed during battle, weighing the inclusion of those who died from wounds or infections in post-war years, etc. As a result, official figures hover anywhere from 493,000 to 750,000 American deaths. Either way, the number of fatalities from the Civil War surpasses that of any other American war in history, and—accepting WWII—surpasses the combined sum of casualties from every other American conflict.

The United States population in 1860 was about 31 million people—a tenth of today’s population. Using the often-cited figure of 620,000 fatalities, about two percent of the American population died in the war. It’s fair to assume that literally everyone knew someone who either was killed in battle or died from disease in camp. Often, since regiments would be mustered out of a certain community or region, entire towns would be robbed of all military-aged men. Today, that ratio would equate to six million deaths.

It is doubtless that every war is a horrific and tragic experience for everyone it touches. Yet as Americans there exists a patriotic dedication bred in the bone, in which we honor and remember the fallen by redoubling our loyalty to the purpose for which they died. The difference of the Civil War is that while all others can feel resolute (or perhaps bereft) in lives taken combating some foreign enemy, in this conflict every death was an American death.

As President Lincoln acknowledged the blood-soaked soil beneath his feet at Gettysburg, he said it was the responsibility of the living to carry the torch of the dead, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That’s why we have Memorial Day.

Posted in history, politics, Uncategorized

Previously known as John Brown’s Body

Six months into the Civil War, things were not going well for the Union (the north). Their army lacked effective leadership, comprehensive training, and many of the engagements took place in Confederate territory, allowing the advantage of familiar terrain. Virtually everyone had presumed the conflict would last 90 days; the terror, destruction and carnage that followed was difficult to fathom.

While in D.C. in November 1861 with her husband, Julia Ward Howe overheard the tune “John Brown’s Body,” the self-chosen theme song of regiments in the area, and entertained the idea of re-writing the lyrics. Later that night, she awoke from a sound sleep with the words in her head that would become the anthem of the Union Army, and subsequently the Union. Even today “the Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a familiar tune, although contemporary understanding is only the first verse, and little on its meaning.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on. 

Continue reading “Previously known as John Brown’s Body”

Posted in activism, history, politics, Uncategorized, women

Throughout her life, Stanton’s father would say, “I wish you were a boy.”

My family is full of strong, successful women. They are teachers, mothers, counselors, translators, researchers, wives, social workers, and change makers. They are brilliant, passionate, stubborn and protective. Growing up amidst their example and stewardship contributed to who I am today.

My maternal grandmother and aunt took my sisters (one younger, one older) and I on a multitude of excursions as children. These trips exposed us to the many possibilities and viewpoints outside of the small town we lived in. When I was around ten years old, we visited Seneca Falls for the first time. Continue reading “Throughout her life, Stanton’s father would say, “I wish you were a boy.””

Posted in activism, history, politics, Uncategorized

In the words of a man named Martin

A lot has been written, discussed, displayed and filmed about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most iconic Civil Rights leader in our history. Revered during his life and immortalized by his tragic death in 1968, Dr. King’s legend has a lot to do with the profoundly insightful things he said.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of three people who have earned a federal holiday. Christopher Columbus got a holiday for “discovering the continent” (for Europeans); George Washington had an integral role in shaping the country as we’ve known it; and Dr. King called upon the nation to follow through with its “all men are created equal” notion. It wasn’t officially observed in all fifty states until 2000, but the effort to establish a “Martin Luther King Day” began shortly after his death, and was signed into law by President Reagan in 1986.

The almost-six-year-old monument to Dr. King in D.C. features a white granite representation of the leader, cut to create a gap in a half-circle of high stone, where visitors can view some of his quotations. The sixty-foot profile stares with his arms folded out at the Tidal Basin, toward the columned dome dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, founding father and former President. The side of the block featuring his statue reads “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

Continue reading “In the words of a man named Martin”

Posted in history, politics, Uncategorized

No president has ever been a perfect person.

And the White House, for all its revered history and significance, is just a building. A structure constructed by slaves, in fact—along with many of the other historic buildings in D.C., actuated from schematics by hired labor; sometimes to freed individuals, sometimes to slaveowners for use of their “equipment.” It was simply called the President’s house at the time, and wasn’t called the White House until Teddy Roosevelt claimed the title in the 1900s.

Continue reading “No president has ever been a perfect person.”

Posted in activism, history, politics, Uncategorized

What does it mean to lead?

What qualities make someone a leader?

When I was in college, and involved in many groups and the campus paper, we spent a lot of time talking about what is ideal for someone in a position to lead others. I realized then, and acutely so now, that people have vastly different opinions about what is a good for the person in charge.

Being in charge depends somewhat on the organization—a coalition designed to uplift and support black people should be led by a black person; an LGBTQ-action group ought to be led by an LGBTQ person; a group of moms ideally will be led by someone who is also a mother. I understand that sometimes this is impossible or exploitative—but sufficient effort must be made to have the leader ‘match up’ with the values promoted by the group.

When that group is all of us—Americans—it gets a little murkier. How can we select one individual who not only represents all of us, but can embody the ideals that we stand for—especially when those representations and ideals vary so greatly? What skills and strengths must that person have? Has anyone thought about what that list of values might look like?

To some people, sadly, those qualities include being a man; being white; being a Christian, straight, cisgender, upper-middle-class, able-bodied. FDR’s poll numbers would have been dismally lower had the general public known he used a wheelchair for the majority of his mobility needs, despite the fact that he was one of the most influential and celebrated presidents in our nation’s history. Still more would have jumped ship had they known he had been unfaithful to Eleanor—fidelity being a value that, apparently, is not as sacred in today’s society for a president.

To others, those qualities include the cutthroat, tough-as-nails exterior that can reaffirm America’s might (as if it needed that). Often this aligns with capitalistic trappings, shown by the consistent flock of supporters trailing behind those with wealth, which (for so many) is synonymous with powerful—regardless of how this person amassed such wealth, including the potential disregard of morals it took to get there. Although unabashed honesty is an important quality for a president, history teaches us that a successful business model usually involves a degree of deception. Americans desire a strong sense of trustworthiness in their leader, yet turncoats and frenemies are integral parts in thriving white-collar worlds. How do we as individuals, and a country, grapple with that paradox?

While it is necessary for a leader of a nation to be steeled and realistic toward potential displays of force, countless numbers place high regard for experience and ambition in military control. But I would argue this concoction of strength also includes objectivity, patience, decisiveness, and perception—and specifically discourages knee-jerk, emotional (irrational) reactions; operating on a bite-sized, superficial analysis; and premature self-serving aggrandizement.

Those who value the strong often gravitate toward decisive, relentless ambition. Still others uphold a more humble courage balanced with selflessness, compassion, kindness, and understanding. Few individuals are capable of even attempting the balancing act of trying to please all of us. But this discussion about values, and how we align the hierarchy of what we find important, can be a telling exercise indeed.

Perhaps the real reason for all of this is the distorted perception that so many have about what it means to be strong, successful, a leader, or even a ‘good’ person.