Washington President Barack Obama avoided a racial controversy on his first Memorial Day in office by sending wreaths to separate memorials for Confederate soldiers and for blacks who fought against them during the Civil War.
Last week, a group of about 60 professors petitioned the White House, asking the first black U.S. president to break tradition and not memorialize military members from the Confederacy, the group of Southern states that supported slavery.
“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 petitioners said. “This implies that the humanity of Africans and African-Americans is of no significance.”
The White House ignored the request.
Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, a customary presidential undertaking on Memorial Day. He also had one sent to the Confederate Memorial there, a traditional practice but not well publicized. Obama also took the unprecedented step of sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington’s historically black U Street neighborhood.
That memorial — to the 200,000 blacks who fought for the North during the Civil War — had been mentioned as a compromise in recent days.
Presidents traditionally visit Arlington National Cemetery to personally leave a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a marble structure holding the remains of unidentified U.S. service members who died during war. Presidents then have aides deliver wreaths to other memorials or monuments, generally including the Confederate Memorial.
Wreaths also were left Monday at memorials to the USS Maine and the Spanish American War.
In brief but solemn remarks after he laid the wreath and observed a moment of silence, Obama saluted the men and women of America’s fighting forces, both living and dead, as “the best of America.”
“Why in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of narrowest self-interest have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others,” he said. “Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?”
“Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said ‘I’ll go.’ That is why they are the best of America,” Obama said. “That is what separates them from those who have not served in uniform, their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”