How to commemorate those who have laid down their lives for their country? Memorial Day wasn’t much of an issue in my childhood. 100 years after the Civil War, most white Southerners still considered this a Yankee holiday. Robert E. Lee’s birthday, a state holiday across much of the South, got more press. White folks didn’t go much to events like the annual commemoration of the Union prisoners who died in the Confederate POW camp in my father’s hometown of Florence, SC.
For me that changed when I went north to Pundit High School at the age of 13 on a full scholarship. Memorial Day was a BIG event there; the 200 boys in the student body spent many spring evenings learning to march around the campus in preparation for the town’s Memorial Day parade out to the cemetery where the names of all the town’s war dead going back to the Revolution were read out. A combination of precocious anti-Vietnam feeling and, I think, culture shock at the vast difference between Pundit High and everything else I had known led me to the conclusion that on conscientious grounds I should not march.