This Memorial Day, I thought I would provide the words of Frederick Douglass, the great American patriot and abolitionist who delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in 1871 in honor of Memorial Day (then called “Decoration Day”). Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, fought in the Civil War—Lewis, a Sergeant Major with the Massachusetts 54th, was wounded in the Battle of Fort Wagner (dramatized in the film, Glory). Although both sons survived the terrible conflict, Douglass reminded listeners of the true meaning of the day, and urged them not to forget the causes of the war. Here is an excerpt—click here for the full speech.
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
Below is the transcript of President Barack Obama’s final presidential proclamation in memory of our fallen solders:
PRAYER FOR PEACE, MEMORIAL DAY, 2016
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BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Since America's earliest days, proud patriots have forged a safer, more secure Nation, and though battlefields have changed and technology has evolved, the selflessness of our service members has remained steadfast. They have stepped forward when our country was locked in revolution and civil war; fought threats of fascism and terrorism; and led the way in securing peace and stability around the globe. They have sacrificed more than most of us could ever imagine -- not for glory or gratitude, but for causes greater than themselves. In the children who replicate their courage and strength, in the spouses and partners who forever seek to mend their broken hearts, and in the parents who mourn the absence of the sons and daughters they raised, we are reminded of our enduring commitment to do right by our fallen warriors and their families.
Those who gave their last full measure of devotion for the values that bind us as one people deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. In recognizing those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we pledge to never stop working to fulfill our obligations to all members of our Armed Forces so they know we stand beside them every step of the way -- not just when we need them, but also when they need us.
Today, and every day, let us remember the servicemen and women we have lost, and let us honor them by rededicating ourselves to strengthening our Nation's promise. With love, grace, and reflection, let us honor our fallen fellow Americans, known and unknown, who sacrificed their freedom to ensure our own.
In honor of all of our fallen service members, the Congress, by a joint resolution approved May 11, 1950, as amended (36 U.S.C. 116), has requested the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period on that day when the people of the United States might unite in prayer. The Congress, by Public Law 106-579, has also designated 3:00 p.m. local time on that day as a time for all Americans to observe, in their own way, the National Moment of Remembrance.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May 30, 2016, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time during which people may unite in prayer.
I also ask all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. I request the Governors of the United States and its Territories, and the appropriate officials of all units of government, to direct that the flag be flown at half-staff until noon on this Memorial Day on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels throughout the United States and in all areas under its jurisdiction and control. I also request the people of the United States to display the flag at half-staff from their homes for the customary forenoon period.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-sixth day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fortieth.