Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day: The Limits of Tyrants

I just returned from a lovely Memorial Day Ceremony at the Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg. The Lincoln Cemetery is a treasure in our town, for it holds the fallen soilders of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Since 1992, thanks to Mary Patrick, the Chair of the Memorial Day Committee, the Lincoln Cemetery has held a memorial service. I had never been to a service on any of the battlefields, and I have lived in Gettysburg for 7 years, so this year I decided to attend the ceremony commemorating the USCT.

I have no relatives, that I know of, who fought in Gettysburg, or in the Civil War. So, I have a hard time relating to the battlefields in the ways that thousands of tourists do every year in my town. I ride by them on my bike, or walk my dog around the monuments. I appreciate the large swathes of land in my town that will forever be protected from tract homes because of these battlefields. I even went on a Civil War kick my first summer here, and read all about the 20th Maine because I admired Joshua Chamberlin. But, somehow, I have never felt a connection to this place.

In fact, when my Dad visited me here, the first time, we went on a tour and my Dad teared up when he saw Pickett's Charge. I kept wondering what it was about this place or my psychology that prevented me from relating to these hallowed grounds. I think some of that became a bit more clear today as I sat listening to the speaker, Karen James, who is the Coordinator of Underground Railroad History with the Bureau of Archives and History of the Pennsylvania Historical and Musem Commission. She spoke directly to the audience, many of which are direct descendants of the fallen soilders buried in the Lincoln Cemetery.

Ms. James did a nice job connecting the people in the audience to the significance of the USCT and why memorializing these men is important for all Americans. They risked their lives, none of them allowed to be citizens, many of them slaves, to fight for their freedom. Their deaths were essential to the Civil Rights Movement; they gave their lives to a future that they would not yet realize.

The service helped me mediate further on the words of Frederick Douglass that my UU minister read to us today:

"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."

I highlighted the portion of his words that really resonated with me. I found, for the first time, my way to connect to this place and to feel authentic about memorializing the battlefields. I found the story, the vision, and the sacrifice that I could really embrace, understand and, surprisingly, feel quite passionate about. I have all too often been a rather conciliatory girl, looking for peaceful, or at least, less stressful ways to resolve conflicts. I roll my eyes all too often when I listen to someone voicing that such a policy or decision was unfair, mostly because I don't want to sit in a long meeting. I rarely take the time to think about how much some people are willing to risk--not just their reputation to eye rollers like me--but their lives to impose the limits of tyrants.

I would like to think of myself as more a pacifist than anything, but I cannot ignore how crucial human struggle is sometimes. I don't embrace it the way Hegel does in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, wherein he sees all bloody struggles redeemed through geist bringing freedom through those conflicts to all people. I don't think that all conflicts can be redeemed. I am not sure we will be able to redeem the lives of so many young people lost in Iraq (not to mention mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers). But, I have to acknowledge, after this memorial service, that fallen soilders are sometimes sacrifices that have to be offered up to draw the line to those in power.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.