Confederate Memorial Day: Necessary Or Just Offensive?

Monday was Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Six other states (Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) celebrate the holiday as well on other days. It predates the Union version, which came to be the one now celebrated by the whole country. (By some accounts, the national holiday was actually inspired by the Confederate version). 

Yet, like most celebrations and symbols of the Confederacy, it is not without controversy. Some think the holiday is outdated, and should no longer be reason to cancel legislative sessions, while others find it downright offensive: "I think it's unfortunate; it's not a day I would celebrate knowing the history of the Confederacy," said state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta). Is it still important to celebrate the history of the Confederate soldiers separately from that of all soldiers, as we do on the national Memorial Day?

Southerners certainly enjoy celebrating their heritage. In general, it’s hard to fault someone for that. The problem, though, is the obvious one: the celebration of something like Confederate Memorial day, like celebrations of secession, are inevitably interpreted by some to mean celebrations of slavery. After all, this is what the Civil War was fought over – it's why there even was a thing called the Confederate States of America. Sure, it’s fair to say that other aspects of Southern culture are rightly celebrated, just as is the case with anyone’s culture. But it’s possible to do so without specifically recalling secession and the Civil War. It is this distinction that many people — African Americans as well as many whites — implicitly draw when they take issue with things like Confederate Memorial day.

This is certainly not to say that we should forget the Civil War, or that we should celebrate Union soldiers while vilifying Confederate soldiers. Indeed, no Memorial Day service I have ever attended has done such a thing. But let’s not forget that slavery was a shameful, morally abhorrent and exploitative practice, and we emphatically should celebrate its end. To turn around and also celebrate the movement that sought to perpetuate it implies either a profound cognitive dissonance, or a disagreement between many Southerners and the rest of the country.

Since most Southerners I’ve spoken with emphatically disavow any support for the institution of slavery, we need some way to recognize those who gave their lives in the Civil war uniformly, without implicitly defending the institution of slavery. I think Memorial Day works just fine. 

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Nate Smith

Master's of Public Policy student at the University of Michigan.

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