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A Moment of Silence: Reflecting on Memorial Day

Editorial Note: This post is part of our blog series about diversity, equity, and inclusion. These posts are written by staff on our Equity Committee and originally shared internally. We're sharing them publicly to be transparent about our internal dialogue, reflections and learning process as we work on being an anti-racist organization.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States that is observed on the last Monday in May. Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day because it commemorates those who died while serving in the military. In contrast, Veterans Day is for those who served their term(s) and were discharged from the armed forces. Memorial Day is on May 31st this year.

A personal note from a BW team member about their Memorial Day experience

“My family is lucky enough to not have anyone who died while part of the military. Of the four people I can think of who are veterans in my family, none of them ever seemed to want to talk about their time in the military. My family never went to Memorial Day Parades or had anyone close to us to commemorate on this holiday.

“My first time at a Memorial Day event was in my early twenties when a family member I was visiting in Pennsylvania took me to a small gathering at the graveyard behind a local church. Thirty or so people waited quietly in the grass still damp and cold with morning dew for a small group of four or five men and boys dressed in historical clothing to make their way out from the church basement to the graveyard. As they walked over, in step to the beat that one of the boys struck on his drum, one of the men unfolded a copy of the Gettysburg Address and read it to the modest crowd. At the end of the reading, another person raised their trumpet and played Taps.

“At the conclusion of the trumpet song, the crowd dispersed and that was it. The relative who had brought me to the event had tears in their eyes as we turned to our car and set about our day.”

History of the Holiday

May 1, 1865 “[A] commemoration organized by freed slaves and some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. At least 257 prisoners died, many of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves, so Black residents of Charleston decided to give them a proper burial.

“About 10,000 people, mostly Black residents, participated in the May 1 tribute, according to coverage back then in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New York Tribune. Starting at 0900hrs, about 3,000 Black schoolchildren paraded around the racetrack holding roses and singing the Union song John Brown’s Body, and were followed by adults representing aid societies for freed black men and women. Black pastors delivered sermons and led attendees in prayer and in the singing of spirituals, and there were picnics. James Redpath, the white director of freedman’s education in the region, organized about 30 speeches by Union officers, missionaries and Black ministers. Participants sang patriotic songs like America, We’ll Rally around the Flag, and The Star-Spangled Banner. In the afternoon, three white and Black Union regiments marched around the graves and staged a drill.” (source)

May 5, 1868 “Three years after the Civil War ended, […] the head of an organization of Union veterans […] established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Major General John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” (source)

“During that first national commemoration, former Union Gen. and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.” (source)

Post-WWI “After World War I, [Memorial Day] became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States.” (source)

1968 “In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May instead of a set calendar day. By 1971, the three-day weekend for federal employees went into full effect.” (source)

December 2000 “[…] in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” (source) More information about this moment of remembrance is below.

Commemoration Practices

Displaying the Flag “On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon. In the morning, the flag should be raised momentarily to the top and then lowered to half-staff. Americans can also honor prisoners of war and those missing in action by flying the POW/MIA flag.” (source)

Visiting Grave Sites and Memorial Monuments “Many Americans make special flower arrangements and deliver them as a family to grave sites of their loved ones and ancestors.” (source)

“Each year on Memorial Day, veterans and their families congregate at The Wall [of Vietnam veterans] to remember and to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. On these special days, prominent Americans from all walks of life come to the Memorial to deliver thoughtful and patriotic speeches.” (source)

National Moment of Remembrance “The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 1500hrs local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: ‘It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.’” (source)

Wearing Memorial Day Poppies “The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrea. War worker Moina Michael made a personal pledge to always wear red silk poppies as an emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died,’ and began a tradition that was adopted in the United States, England, France, Australia and more than 50 other countries.” (source)

Other Ways to Observe the Holiday

“Major League Baseball games usually come to a stop during the Moment of Remembrance, and for the past several years, Amtrak engineers have taken up the practice of sounding their horns in unison at precisely 1500hrs.

“[…Both] the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., and the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade in Queens, N.Y., bill themselves as the largest Memorial Day parades in the nation.” (source)

There is a biker event each Memorial Day. According to Newsweek, “Rolling to Remember will […] honor all of the veterans lost [and] also advocates for memorializing all veterans who die by suicide in and out of deployment, according to their website. The event is asking individuals to ride 22 miles in their hometowns to advocate for the 22 veterans who die by suicide daily.”

Additional Resources


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