Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day History and Law

On the last Monday in May, we celebrate Memorial Day. Over two dozen towns claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. Of course, only one is correct: Boalsburg, Pa. OK, I may be a little biased, having grown up (and now living) minutes from the town. But here's part of the story from Albrecht Powell at About.com:
The Boalsburg Memorial Day story begins in October 1864 when three residents -- Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Myers -- met at the cemetery adjacent to the Zion Lutheran Church [to place flowers on graves of loved ones who died in the Civil War]. . . . [B]efore the two women [Emma Hunter & Elizabeth Meyer] left each other that Sunday in October, 1864, they had agreed to meet again on the same day the following year in order to honor not only their own two loved ones, but others who now might have no one left to kneel at their lonely graves. During the weeks and months that followed, the two women discussed their little plan with friends and neighbors and all heard it with enthusiasm. The report was that on July 4, 1865 -- the appointed day -- what had been planned as a little informal meeting of two women turned into a community service. All Boalsburg was gathered there . . . and every grave in the little cemetery was decorated with flowers and flags; not a single one was neglected.
Other towns have their own stories of how the holiday began.

On May 5, 1868, the holiday was formally recognized in General Order No. 11 from Union General John Logan. Originally, the holiday was called "Decoration Day." In a concurring opinion in the Supreme Court flag-burning case (Texas v. Johnson), Justice Kennedy recognized that: "Countless flags are placed by the graves of loved ones each year on what was first called Decoration Day, and is now called Memorial Day." The Uniform Monday Holiday Act officially declared nine federal holidays (MLK Day and Inauguration Day were later added) and declared that Memorial Day shall be celebrated on the last Monday in May. 5 U.S.C. § 6103.

President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation in 1966 recognizing Waterloo, NY as the birthplace of Memorial Day:
Congress has officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began one hundred years ago in Waterloo, New York. In conformity with the request contained in that concurrent resolution, it is my privilege to call attention to the centennial observance of Memorial Day in Waterloo, New York, on May 30, 1966.
Of course, as a loyal Pennsylvanian, I'll point out that 1866 is two years AFTER the Boalsburg story in 1864.

Image: Honor the Brave, Memorial Day, May 30, 1917 from Library of Congress. No known restrictions on reproduction.

This article originally appeared on Lawffice Space on May 30, 2010. Posted by Philip Miles, an employment lawyer with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania.