Stepping Back, Looking Closer: Red, White and Blue, Past, Present and Future
K. S. Volcjak
The holidays are upon us. No, I am not referring to some indecently early Christmas sale. The red, white and blue holidays: Memorial Day, The Last Day of School, Flag Day, Juneteenth, Independence Day.
If we let them, these days can show us the intersection of our past, present and future. We look back, because it is important to remember and consider where we have come from. Just as it takes two points to construct a line, connecting that point from the past to the present can show us where we are going. Connecting that point from the past to where we want to be in the future can tell us something about where we are in the present. And sometimes where we are in the present can yield new understandings of the past which we can use to plot the future.
Independence Day is the lodestar. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The Declaration begat the surrender of the British in 1781, the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the disastrous Articles of Confederation and then the Bill of Rights which made the Constitution palatable to the states and so brought into being our present form of government.
But the Constitution had a few blind spots. Something was amiss for it to stand silent and allow a man like John Chavis, a Revolutionary War veteran, Presbyterian minister, and highly regarded educator, to die impoverished in the 1830s because the country he had fought to establish rescinded his right to vote and teach in the aftermath of the actions of another educated black preacher, a man named Nat Turner.
Both North and South looked back to the Declaration and to the Constitution and plotted a course forward, courses that intersected in the Civil War. The victors of the Civil War gave us May 30 as Memorial Day because it was not the anniversary of any battle. Also known as Decoration Day, it took a while to filter south and, in the early days, competed with other dates, such as Jefferson Davis' birthday (June 3).
The Civil War also gave us Juneteenth, a holiday I didn't learn about until recently. It commemorates the events of June 18 and 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, in which the last remaining slaves learned of their emancipation. Although the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863, for obvious reasons it was not recognized by the Confederacy. General Gordon Granger and his Federal troops remedied that upon their arrival in Galveston June 18. On June 19, General Gordon read "General Order No. 3," which begins, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."
One more step towards the truths we hold to be self-evident. Juneteenth was made an official state holiday in Texas in 1980, and is recognized in 39 other states, including North Carolina.
The Last Day of School is a sort of civic holiday (as is The First Day of School!). As a society, we agreed that education was important enough to be compulsory. A solid public education system is the foundation of a solid democracy. An excellent public education system ought to yield an exceptional democracy. Looking back, looking forward, where are we at present?
And in the midst of these days is Flag Day. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States of America. It wasn't until the Civil War loomed that anyone thought to honor the flag with a day of its own. School teachers in the 1880s provided some momentum for this holiday, but it wasn't until 1916 (in the shadow of the Great War across the Atlantic) that President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 to be Flag Day. In 1949 (in the dropping temperatures of the Cold War) an act of Congress made it National Flag Day.
The flag was not a rallying point in the '60s and '70s. Americans burned American flags in protest and people who didn't agree with the government were branded "un-American."
One of our greatest accomplishments in the years following 9/11 was learning to recognize the loyalty of the opposition. We may not agree, may think they are war mongering fools or ivory tower dreamers, but we don't label them "un-American."
We have learned that the flag is not a symbol of the current administration, but of something much more powerful. It is the symbol of our hopes and dreams as Americans, for America. The present and the future.
We've come a long way.