Real history: Memorial Day was born in struggle against the Klan
Klan on the run. Art from the cover of Gus Hall's 1985 book, "Fighting Racism." | L. Kubinyi / Courtesy of International Publishers

We must not forget that Memorial Day, which we celebrate on Monday, belongs to the foes of racism. The day people place flowers on the graves of fallen veterans was founded by the enemies of the Ku Klux Klan. Memorial Day belongs to the democratic traditions of the American people.

It sprang out of the war against the hooded terrorists of the South who sought to re-establish slavery on American soil. American right-wingers and false patriots try to hide the real story of the birth of Memorial Day in 1868. At the time, Major General John A. Logan, the father of Memorial Day, was in the thick of the fight against the Ku Klux Klan when he issued the first call for May 30th celebrations.

General Logan was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first Civil War veterans’ association. He was one of the outstanding heroes of that four-year-long struggle.

Logan’s Fight

Logan was a citizen soldier. Enlisting as a private in a Michigan regiment, he fought in the first great battle of Bull Run in 1861. While rich families like the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the Carnegies were buying substitutes to bleed in their stead, Logan was wounded at Fort Donelson. By ’62, he was a Major General, and in ’63 he was “Marching Through Georgia” at the head of a division of anti-slavery troops.

Victory won and the slaveowners smashed, Logan and his soldiers came home in triumph. And then, an assassin’s bullet laid President Abraham Lincoln low and the small-minded vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president.

Logan returned to Congress—from which the war had taken him—to make sure that the slaveowners would not slip back into power.

Denounced by slave masters

They began to slip back in with the help of Johnson, who sabotaged the fight against the rising Ku Klux Klan. Logan believed in showing no mercy to rebellious slave owners, who organized mobs to whip and lynch Black and white Republicans (then the anti-slavery party) in the South. His speeches were full of bitter denunciations of the slave masters.

Following the lead of Thaddeus Stevens, the great anti-slavery Republican of Pennsylvania, Logan was soon in a clash with President Johnson. The fight for power between president and Congress came to a head when Johnson fired Secretary of War Stanton, who was directing the military to fight against the Klan.

First Memorial Day

Stevens and Logan and their fellow progressives almost had Johnson fired in the impeachment trial that followed. Just one Senate vote saved the little man’s job in the spring of 1868.

While that fight was underway, General Logan saw that the minds of the masses of the American people must be reawakened to the ideals for which the Civil War against slavery was fought. In the thick of the impeachment trial against Johnson, he helped work out the idea of a Memorial Day to honor the heroes of the bloody battlefields of Bull Run, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and a hundred other theatres of war.

All over the North on May 30, 1868, Americans marched to the graves of their veteran dead, strewing flowers and singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “John Brown’s Body,” and other Civil War songs.

What it meant

War-orphaned children were the center of the celebration at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.

Memorial Day helped serve the political purposes of the progressives in Congress. It helped them generate mass support for the fight to reconstruct Southern political life on a democratic basis. It helped postpone, for a few years at least, the return of the Southern oligarchy and the overthrow of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

For years to come, Memorial Day speeches expressed some of the purest ideals of American democracy. At these annual celebrations, people like Oliver Wendell Holmes, not yet a Supreme Court justice, voiced their opposition to slavery. And men like Logan himself warned against the suppression of liberty in the South.

Radicals of the North

At a Memorial Day celebration in 1882, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, great veteran of the Civil War, said of American liberty:

Major Gen. John A. Logan – Civil War veteran, opponent of slavery, and founder of Memorial Day. | Library of Congress

“Today, we reverently thank the abolitionists. Earth has produced no grander men, no nobler women… The radicals of the South said: ‘No Union without slavery.’ The radicals of the North replied: ‘No Union without liberty.’

“The Northern radicals were right. Upon the great issue of free homes for free men, a president was elected by the free states. The South appealed to the sword and raised the standard of revolt. For the first in history, the oppressor rebelled…

“The first shot liberated the North. Constitutions, statutes and decisions, compromises, platforms, and resolutions made, passed, and ratified in the interest of slavery became mere legal lies….

“Millions instantly resolved that freedom should not perish and that slavery should not live. Millions of our brothers, our sons, our fathers, our husbands answered to the nation’s call…”

Referring to the flags planted on the soldiers’ graves, Col. Ingersoll said:

“This flag means free hands… a free government… universal education.”

It means, he said, that Americans have the right to change their government when they want to.

The right-wing extremists and fascists of today would suppress these Memorial Day ideals… But we will answer them, this Memorial Day, as we pledge ourselves anew to freedom….

The traditions of our revolutionary history are on our side in the fight against fascism, and Memorial Day is our day.

This is an excerpted version of an article that first appeared in the Daily Worker on May 29, 1937, under the headline “Memorial Day Belongs to the Foes of Fascism.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Art Shields
Art Shields

"Art Shields (1888-1988) was the Daily Worker’s greatest labor reporter. I got to know Art and his wife Esther, herself a labor journalist, soon after I joined the staff of the Worker in January 1967. Art helped me hone my writing skills. He was a role model in his loyalty to workers and their struggles. A tall, lean, strikingly handsome man, he was quiet spoken and modest to a fault. But he was also a superb storyteller." -- Tim Wheeler

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