John R. Hawkins III

As we prepare to begin the summer season in earnest, just what is this holiday called Memorial day?  Who started it and why? Moreover, what might we consider deciding to do for ourselves in honor of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice – dying in service to our nation?

We all know that “Memorial Day” is an official federal holiday for remembering people who died while serving in the military; separate and distinct from “Veterans’ Day,” which is to honor all who served in the military living and deceased. Memorial Day is to be celebrated on the last Monday of May and was originally Decoration Day in 1868.  The day was to be used for decorating the graves of soldiers.

A fact about “Memorial Day” not known by many should be a point of pride for African Americans. A widely accepted fact by historians, championed and written about by famed Yale University historian, David W. Blight is that three years earlier, a group of freed African American slaves created and executed the first widely publicized observance of a “Memorial Day” on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Blight’s historical research and the reporting of the New York Tribune at that time reveal that at a place in Charleston called Hampton Park Race Course, over 250 Union Soldier prisoners were buried in very shallow and unmarked graves by the confederate Army.  Freed Men, missionaries, teachers, African American ministers, Union Troops and about 3,000 African American school children from newly formed freedmen’s schools properly prepared the area. They built an arch called “Martyrs of Race Course,” and observed the first of what we now call “Memorial Day.”

They celebrated with a picnic, song and by placing flowers on graves, things still done today. As we all know, many cemeteries and families often place flowers and American flags at the grave sites of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and at graves of love-ones whether they served or not.

No one knows what goes through the mind of someone when they died while in military service. We all know that many who have served were drafted and really did not want to serve. What we do know is that they died while or after serving our Nation; and while not 100% safe from the newest enemy, terrorism, we are safer and better-off because of their service.

So, just maybe the requested one moment of silence across the nation at 3 p.m. local time on the last Monday of May might be worth a thought. I submit we owe them more. We owe them positive action to not only honor their sacrifice but to build upon their dedication to the wellness of our communities.

My point is not to put a damper on your festivities; but rather that we show our pride in self and dedication to a better way of life for our communities which many died to guarantee. Maybe, just maybe, we can do this by taking actions to further the well being of our communities. We can do this by reflecting on our African American part in this national recognition of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Some may even decide to do their part to stop Black – on – Black crime as a way of furthering the purposes for which many African Americans have given their lives.

From my foxhole, the best way to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country is to remind ourselves and promise to exercise our right to vote for those who will do good for our communities and do all in our individual and collective powers to see to it that those not in our best interests are defeated.

Maj Gen US Army (ret) John R. Hawkins III, JD, MPA is President and CEO of Hawkins Solutions Intl., a government relations and lobby company. His last military assignment as a “two star” was Dir., Human Resources Directorate for the Army world-wide and prior to that Deputy Chief Public Affairs for the Army, world-wide.