Racial debate dogs Memorial Day recognition

President Barack Obama sought to dodge racial controversy on Memorial Day, sending wreaths to a monument for Confederate soldiers and other flowers to a memorial honoring more than 200,000 African-Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Obama, the nation’s first black president, planned to continue tradition and have aides leave a wreath at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the 600-acre site that once was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s estate. But the White House also will send a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington’s historically black U Street neighborhood.

Presidents traditionally visit Arlington to personally leave a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a marble structure housing the remains of unidentified U.S. military members who died during war. Presidents then have aides deliver wreaths to other memorials or monuments, generally including the Confederate memorial.

But a group of about 60 professors last week sent a petition to the White House asking Obama to avoid a memorial for Confederate military members who died during the war between the North and the South.

"The Arlington Confederate Monument is a denial of the wrong committed against African-Americans by slave owners, Confederates and neo-Confederates, through the monument’s denial of slavery as the cause of secession and its holding up of Confederates as heroes," the petition said. "This implies that the humanity of Africans and African-Americans is of no significance."

Among the professors who signed the letter is 1960s radical William Ayers, a University of Chicago education professor who helped found the radical group the Weather Underground that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol. Republicans tried to link Obama with Ayers during the presidential campaign; the two lived in the same neighborhood and served on a charity board together.

The African American Civil War Memorial had been discussed as a compromise in recent days.

"President Obama, why not send two wreaths?" Kirk Savage, an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. "One to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery and another to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which commemorates the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for liberation from slavery in the Union armed forces."

The White House hoped to sidestep the distraction and spend Obama’s first Memorial Day as president speaking in honor of the nation’s veterans and their families. He scheduled a private breakfast at the White House with family members who had lost loved ones in war.

In person, Obama planned to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and then speak about the nation’s military members who died in battle.

"This is not only a time for celebration, it is also a time to reflect on what this holiday is all about; to pay tribute to our fallen heroes; and to remember the servicemen and women who cannot be with us this year because they are standing post far from home — in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world," Obama said during his weekly radio and Internet address ahead of the holiday.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, have made veterans and military families a priority during his young administration. Obama’s budget proposed the largest single-year funding increase in the last three decades to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Our fighting men and women — and the military families who love them — embody what is best in America. And we have a responsibility to serve all of them as well as they serve all of us," Obama said during his radio address.

"And yet, all too often in recent years and decades, we, as a nation, have failed to live up to that responsibility. We have failed to give them the support they need or pay them the respect they deserve. That is a betrayal of the sacred trust that America has with all who wear — and all who have worn — the proud uniform of our country."

The president also plans to send flowers to the USS Maine Memorial and the Spanish American War Memorial.


  1. Uncle Ludwig

    Obama should look out for the meaning of the day, and not worry about a single agenda on the minds of a select group.

    Even though the Civil War became a conflict symbolized most by our divisions over slavery, it was, in fact, a conflict about something more fundamental, which the professors should know better than to ignore. The Civil War was initially about what this nation was fundamentally about – whether the states have more authority to govern themselves than the union of states has. Certainly, slavery was the key ingredient, but the question of making this nation into a confederacy or a union was what was at the heart of the mix.

    Even though I’m glad the Confederacy did not get their way, I would be deeply dismayed if Obama chose to ignore the Confederate monument. These were Americans, after all, who fought for what they believed in, right or wrong. And that’s all that really matters on Memorial Day.

  2. woody188

    Leave it to the AP to bring up race on a day we honor those that served regardless of color. Always dividing for profit.