I gave the following remarks at the War Memorial in Hyde Park, NY on Memorial Day 2016.
Thank you for inviting me to join you today to share in the 2016 commemoration of Memorial Day. As you may know, this holiday began in the late 1860s and was first known as Decoration Day, a day set aside in communities across the country to decorate, with flowers and flags, the graves of those who died in the Civil War. It continued as a day to remember and honor our war dead, but it was not until 1971, that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday. That followed the 1966 naming of Waterloo, NY, which had recorded it’s first observance in 1866, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
Having the honor of speaking in Hyde Park today, my first instinct, as it so often is, was to look into what former First Lady and personal heroine Eleanor Roosevelt had to say about Memorial Day. What I found was a number of wonderful “My Day” essays, the series of newspaper columns she published six days a week from 1935 to 1962. However, one especially remarkable column written exactly 70 years ago today — on MAY 30, 1946– speaks as clearly to us today as it must have when it was written.
Seven decades ago today, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “This is the first Memorial Day since the end of the war in the Pacific and yet in spite of that fact, many people will say to themselves on Memorial Day: “The world does not seem to be at peace as yet.”
“In this country there will be parades and we will visit graves and cemeteries where lie those who have died for their country in previous wars, and most of us will pray that these years of restlessness may pass and that peace may come again to the world as a whole. I hope, however, that we will do more than pray, because it is going to require a great deal of work … to make of our own country the kind of a country which can … lead the world in its struggles to a peaceful future.
Seventy years ago, she wrote: “When we visit the graves of our soldiers in this country I hope we will think of the cemeteries all over the world where lie our men who died both in this world war and the last, and I hope the panorama of names representing every nation in the world will recall to us that in the United States, our citizens are citizens of the world.
Seven decades ago, she wrote: “We have no room in this country for racial prejudice because our people come from every race and were brought together by an idea — and are made strong as a nation by the fact that we believe in certain democratic ideals.
“There is no room in this nation for religious prejudices either. Men of all races and religions fought the war and died side by side. The men who came back and are now struggling together to make the peace, have a right to equal economic opportunity, to equal justice before the law and to equal participation in our government.
Seventy years ago she wrote: “We are all citizens of the United States and as such dedicate ourselves on Memorial Day to an effort to give to all our soldiers the returns that they are entitled to for the sacrifices which they have made.
“As far as possible, we must insist that our government try to give them the housing and the education which we promised them and then forgot to plan for. Our government must see to it that they have jobs, and above all, that medical care which they may need for many years to come, is available at all times.
And seventy years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this: “On this Memorial Day too, we might remember to shed a tear for the women in other lands who mourn their dead and their sacrifices, and who perhaps have less cause for hope of better things in the near future than we have. Let us on this Memorial Day hold out a helping hand to all women throughout the world and agree to cooperate with every agency of our government so that another Memorial Day may see us all more securely established in a peaceful world.”
How powerful and how very timely to hear those words written seven decades ago by the former First Lady and human rights activist: “We have no room in this nation for racial prejudice and religious prejudice.”
How prescient to remind our government what we owe to returning veterans — and to recognize government’s failure to this day to prepare adequately for Housing, Education, Jobs and Medical Care for those men and women returning from active duty. I would add that we need to do a better job, as well, providing Mental Health Care for our veterans and their families.
How sensitive to understand the challenges that women across the globe struggled with seventy years ago and how heartbreaking to know that too much hopelessness remains today.
As we pause to remember those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, as well as their families and friends who NEVER forget them, let us also remember the hope of Hyde Park neighbor, Eleanor Roosevelt: “That another Memorial Day may see us all more securely established in a peaceful world.”