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Why Isn’t Congress Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Memorial Day?

Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2008.

Memorial Day is the most sacred and solemn holiday on the United States calendar. Arguably the most American, as it doesn’t honor a person or significant event in the nation’s history. It commemorates men and women of all races and creeds who gave their lives on the battlefield defending this country. According to Veterans Administration and military records, it’s estimated that around 1.3 million Americans have died in combat service to this nation since its founding- the latest among these being Army Specialist Gabriel David Conde of Anchorage, who was killed in action April 30 in the Tagab District of Afghanistan.

Former Union General John Logan, while serving as the head of Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization, created Memorial Day with his General Order 11. It designated May 30 as the day to decorate the graves of those soldiers killed in combat during the Civil War. The first official ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. 

It became a uniquely American holiday – one of the first among modern nations to honor those killed in combat. The citizens evolved it themselves and kept the day without government guidance of any kind. Generations of people and Presidents alike honored the tradition at cemeteries decorating grave sites, holding ceremonies, and parades paying homage to the fallen. 

This overwhelming response of citizens turning May 30th into a national tradition led Congress to finally declare it an official holiday in 1968 commemorating its 100th anniversary. They moved the date to the last Monday in the month creating another three-day weekend for government employees. U.S. flags are flown at half-mast over the capitol until noon in memory of the dead then raised to full mast to honor the nation they gave their lives to protect. Many members of Congress attend Memorial Day ceremonies and events in the capitol or their districts. 

There are no words for the reverence it holds for Gold Star families or, in particular, combat veterans. Servicemen and women who hold in memory comrades who, in their last moments of life, suspended altruistic concepts of patriotism and simply fought for the man next to them – some leaving in their wake actions under fire that rival any ancient legend. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day. A genuine sesquicentennial – that ten-dollar word used by academics, government officials, and organizations to denote a major milestone of an institution. If ever a holiday deserved an institutional status, it’s Memorial Day. A multifaith, multigenerational citizen custom that evolved into an official United States observance.

National sesquicentennial events call for budgeted committees formed in advance, a dedicated web page, public service announcements, advertising buys in newspaper, radio, and television promoting the institution so, when that day arrives, there’s proper recognition of the importance it serves to the nation. 

Not this time. Both Houses of Congress failed to do anything of merit. Memorial Day’s sesquicentennial fell through the cracks of legislative priorities. There are no special commissions in either house, no legislation, no media alerts, and, in fact, no mention at all that could be found. Some historical and veteran’s organizations are recognizing the anniversary, but that’s where it ends.

The argument can be made that it’s not the legislative branch’s place to do it, except both chambers of Congress unanimously passed the bipartisan United States Semiquincentennial Commission Act of 2016 setting the stage to celebrate the 250th anniversary of this nation’s founding. They even have a web page. The Board includes members selected from both chambers of Congress.  Activities are already underway for events eight years from now.

Without doubt, this will be a worthwhile commemoration.  It may be the most momentous national celebration in American memory. It seems the legislative branch that created that commission could have in the same year or, even the one following, thrown a similar bone to the supporting cast of Americans honored on Memorial Day who made that legacy possible.