Today in Alabama and in Mississippi and in several other southern states is the commemoration of the Confederate War Heroes known as Confederate Memorial Day. This year is especially singled out as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It is on this date in 1865 when General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman.
As a Yankee, I admit I do not fully understand, when our nation has Memorial Day to honor and remember all of America’s war dead, why there is a need to differentiate this war from the rest. The history of the origins of Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day may give some clues. Memorial Day was developed to honor the war dead of both the Union and Confederate Armies. It was first celebrated on May 30, 1868. The south did not choose to honor their war dead on this date but instead chose another day, April 26th. Some southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on a different date. It was not until 1971 did the South recognize this holiday in May when Congress declared the last Monday in May to be a nationally recognized day of memorial to commemorate all war dead. But there some differences in how this particular war is perceived by the losers and winners that I believe is the reason or perhaps the real motivation behind this southern holiday.
If I was to ask what this war between the states was about, those who side with the victors would say this was a war about slavery. Those who side with the losers would state this was a war about state rights and sovereignty. Both answers are partially correct. As my grandmother would say “There are three sides to every story; your side, my side, and the truth.”
The issue between which has predominance, state rights or federal rights continues to be waged in the political arena. This holiday as it is celebrated today is a grim reminder of the concern of federal sovereignty over states rights. It is the battle cry of the Tea partiers who want less federal government. The Tea partiers do not necessarily want less government paid service–as they shout to keep hands off social security and medicare–but they want the states and not the federal government to have more control over their social programs. State rights have come to the fore over same-sex marriage. And it is surely to be on the front burner after the passage of Arizona’s new controversial immigration law.
Do states have the right to determine who they provide services to, who they marry, who can live within their boundaries? Do states have the right to pass discriminatory laws that fly in the face of the federal constitution? What interstate agreements do states have in honoring other states who declare other laws to be legal for their citizens? Confederate Memorial Day is a painful reminder of the wounds that still remain in this country from a war that tore this country in two 150 years ago. Its wounds still fester in the racism expressed in this country under the new guise of fear against socialism, equal rights for sexual minorities, and immigration reform.
From the chair that I sit in, Confederate Memorial Day is a longing to return to the day when states could ensure that white privilege was codified as was the case in the Alabama State Constitution last ratified in 1901 and still on the books though no longer enforceable because of Federal law.