I believe in the power of dates and remembrances. In a time such as America’s (and the world’s) democracy crisis and other great troubles, when people are being buffeted by so many forces at once, those dates, remembrances and accompanying rituals help to ground us and give us strength to endure and hopefully triumph.
Dates and rituals and remembrances are even more important for the heirs to the Black Freedom Struggle and other impaired citizens; they help us to locate ourselves in the continuities of history and to draw continued strength and wisdom from it. Our history and its truths and lessons take on even more importance when the likes of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and the other Republican fascists are literally trying to erase them.
I reread Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” each year on that day.
Likewise, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday I read several of his speeches and essays. I always finish with “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” for its lessons and example about how best to meet one’s destiny.
On this Memorial Day, I will continue with my tradition of reading about how newly freed Black people established that holiday in 1865 by burying war dead of the Union Army. The Washington Post explains:
Memorial Day developed from many springtime rituals, known interchangeably as either Decoration Day or Memorial Day, created to commemorate the Civil War dead. Although many towns across the United States from Arlington, Va., to Waterloo, N.Y., claim to have held the “original” Memorial Day, the holiday probably had dozens or hundreds of origins and diffused across the country.
One possible “first” observance of the holiday was the ceremony organized by the recently freed Black community of Charleston, S.C., in 1865. As historian David Blight documents, Black Charlestonians organized a burial of Union prisoners of war who had died in a Confederate war prison. They built an enclosure for the burial ground, established rows of graves and set an archway over the entrance gate inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Ten thousand people attended, mostly formerly enslaved people. They sang hymns and the national anthem, read Bible verses and decorated graves with flowers, followed by speeches, picnics and Union troop marches that included Black units. As Blight wrote, Black Americans who celebrated Memorial Day “converted Confederate ruin into their own festival of freedom.” Over time, some of that celebration of emancipation may have been subsumed by Juneteenth, the anniversary of slavery’s end in the United States.
A Time Magazine article adds further details:
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 9 a.m., about 3,000 black schoolchildren paraded around the race track 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” and “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.
The New York Tribune described the tribute as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” The gravesites looked like a “one mass of flowers” and “the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them” and “tears of joy” were shed.
What Black Americans did on Memorial Day 1865 in Charleston, reflects a much larger history of our gifts and sacrifice and generosity toward a society and country that for much of its history, viewed us as subhuman property. Instead of responding with hatred and violence, Black Americans instead “built a nation under our feet,” not just for ourselves but for the benefit of all. Black people in America have been singled out for white violence and other assaults precisely because we are both symbols of America’s democratic potential and also its most stalwart defenders.
Memorial Day 2023 takes on even more power and poignancy (and resonates so very loudly and uncomfortably) because it marks a year of resurgent and escalating white supremacist violence and anti-Black hatred in a society where the Trumpist, fascist fever dream continues to endure no matter how many commentators (most of them overly optimistic white people) declare it all but vanquished.
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Last May, a white supremacist terrorist shot and killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo. During the year since Buffalo, Republican fascists and their forces have continued to escalate their attacks against the civil and human rights of Black and brown people.
So-called conservatives are imposing Orwellian thought-crime laws across red states and even in other parts of the country. These laws are targeting books written by Black, brown, LGBTQ, Muslim and other marginalized writers that are deemed to be “unpatriotic,” “divisive,” “pornographic” or “woke.” The real problem, of course, is that books that confront the complex and often painful realities of America’s past and present offend the sensibilities of some white people.
As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, when the Confederate battle flag was triumphantly carried through the halls of the U.S. Capitol by Donald Trump’s terrorists, the Republican fascists and larger white right are leading a revolutionary project to end multiracial democracy, and nothing about that project has slowed down. If anything, it has been accelerated with the Republican Party’s control of the House of Representatives, the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous state and local governments, as well as with Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign.
Trump, DeSantis and the other leading Republican fascists may be conducting a power struggle among themselves, but they have also become even bolder in their embrace of white supremacy and racial authoritarianism. This campaign of right-wing radicalization has proven highly effective: For example, public opinion polls show that a majority of Republican and Trump voters actually believe in the false “great replacement” conspiracy theory and its absurd claims that white people are the real victims of racism and discrimination in America, rather than Black and brown people.
Undeterred by the $787 million settlement in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit, and by what it revealed about the network’s inner workings as a propaganda operation, Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber continues to circulate and amplify white supremacist messaging. America’s police continue to kill unarmed and innocent Black and brown people. The massive protests of 2020, in response to the police murder of George Floyd, have not resulted in substantive police reform. American society is so sick with racism and white supremacy that one of the worst recent high-profile incidents of political thuggery against a Black person was committed by a group of Black police officers in Memphis.
The FBI, DHS and other law enforcement and national security agencies continue to warn that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists represent the greatest threat to America’s domestic safety and security.
Several weeks ago, President Biden issued this warning during a commencement speech at Howard University, the nation’s most prestigious historically Black university:
White supremacy … is the single most dangerous terrorist threat in our homeland. … And I’m not just saying this because I’m at a Black HBCU. I say this wherever I go. … Fearless progress toward justice often means ferocious pushback from the oldest and most sinister of forces…. That’s because hate never goes away. … It only hides under the rocks. And when it’s given oxygen it comes out from under that rock. And that’s why we know this truth as well: Silence is complicity. We cannot remain silent.
Before this weekend, a cadre of Republican fascists sought to hold Biden and the American people hostage by threatening to default on the country’s debt payments. We still do not know the details of the alleged compromise Biden has made with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, but whatever budget cuts have been extracted are nearly certain to disproportionately affect Black and brown people and other vulnerable Americans. Such an outcome is not coincidental. It is an act of structural violence as well as systemic racism.
The cycle of white supremacist terrorism and violence continues: Approximately a year after the white supremacist attack in Buffalo, an apparent neo-Nazi killed eight people at a mall in Allen, Texas.
On Memorial Day, I continue to feel battered and weathered by America’s enduring and undefeated white supremacist culture. I know that I am not alone in these feelings of frustration, exhaustion and growing futility. Where are we to find hope to keep on fighting?
A few weeks ago, we lost a titanic hope warrior in Harry Belafonte, a legendary singer, actor, activist and truth-teller. I few days after his death, I asked the writer Jeff Sharlet, during an interview for Salon about his new book “The Undertow,” what he had learned from his conversations with Belafonte. “Today is a poignant day to explore that,” Sharlet said, noting that his book begins with Belafonte:
I opened the book with him, even knowing that it would cost me readers and sales. Harry Belafonte? To start a book on the Trumpocene? Huh? I needed to start the book with some beauty and some hope. We needed to explore the beauty of the man and the beauty of his anger — and that endures.
The hope that Belafonte gives is not some type of cheap grace. We are not going to beat Trumpism at some appointed time that is close in the future. That is not how the real world works; the struggle is going to be long.
Harry Belafonte, 96 years old, on his death day, knew that he got defeated. Harry Belafonte knew and understood that, more than most people, he was a man who was so essential to the civil rights movement. He hated the Hollywoodization of the movement. He would tell me, “We dreamed of some things, we fought, and they killed a lot of us.” When I was talking to Mr. Belafonte, he would address Martin Luther King, in the present tense, like a ghost that was with him.
The struggle is long. Too many people want a happy ending.
I also recently asked biographer Jonathan Eig what he had learned about hope and progress, resistance and struggle, from writing his epic new biography of Dr. King. In the full historical analysis, did King win or lose his long battle? Eig cautioned that the answer is not yet clear:
It sure looks like he got [beat]. But we don’t know because history changes. History is a living thing. And right now, it feels like everything he warned us about, he was right. We are more divided than ever. Income inequality, racism, antisemitism, they’re all terrible right now. But we don’t know what King’s final impact is, because it’s ongoing. It’s up to us to continue the story.
Activists and historians speak of the “long” Black Freedom Struggle for a reason. On this Memorial Day we are reminded by its origins among Black Americans at the end of the Civil War that democracy must be an active verb, not a passive noun. It is something we do and something we must fight for. America’s multiracial democracy is now, as it has always been, a work in progress. It is contingent and vulnerable — a thing dreamed of, but not yet achieved.
from Chauncey DeVega