What, to the Disinherited, is Memorial Day?

May 30, 2021
Leviticus 19:33-34; Matthew 5:3-13

Some time ago, I was thinking about Memorial Day and how it seems to draw a line between war and the political and social rights that we value. I got a notice from my town of Brentwood last week that reminded me of this. The notice said, “The town of Brentwood will be hosting its annual Memorial Day program to recognize the sacrifices made by our fallen servicemen and women.” In this telling, the height of patriotism is to die in a war outside the country and thereby secure freedom and liberty at home. In this way, we inherit from their deaths, the rights and privileges we enjoy. Maybe this sounds a bit simplistic. I’m not really striving for nuance here. I want us to think about Memorial Day and its representation. So, I ask “what does Memorial Day mean to the disinherited? (I cribbed this title from Frederick Douglas who famously asked, after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, “What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July?” In that vein, I’m asking what Memorial Day, dedicated to the memory of war and violence, can mean for the disenfranchised, the disinherited.

So, I made the mistake of asking Worship Committee if the service today could explore ways in which non-violent and faithful people at work in this country have enabled us – Americans, immigrants, Mennonites – to live lives free of slavery, free of political imprisonment, more free of assault and discrimination for being female, or gay, or black, or immigrant, or anything else – more able to claim an equal voice and a place at the table – to live our lives as our Creator intended. Perhaps we could celebrate their lives today, I suggested to the Worship Committee.

Turns out, the Worship Committee thought it was a good idea, too, and just asked me to do it! I took it as a challenge so here are reflections on this Memorial Day weekend.

First, for sure, I’m inspired by reading the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. But, then, a moment later, I’m discouraged to realize how “abridged” these rights are in practice.

We haven’t yet established justice, insured domestic tranquility, promoted the general welfare and secured the blessings of liberty for everyone. We still abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; we still unjustly deny people life, liberty, and property, we still impose excessive bail, we still inflict cruel and unusual punishment, we still deny to some the equal protection of the laws. We still abridge the right to vote.

To the extent that these promises do exist, it is most often because ordinary people, people like us, saw a gap between the words on paper and the reality they lived in and acted to change it. So, I’m going to tell three stories about people who were disinherited who demanded a full inheritance, without violence and without war.

The first is about a family in West Virginia in the 1930s, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their children went to public schools that started requiring them to salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance. Now, Mennonites, faced this issue, too and they also didn’t want their children saluting the flag and pledging allegiance to a state – our allegiance was to God, they said. The Mennonites at the time opted out of public schools and started private schools.

The Jehovah’s Witness family in West Virginia, looked for a solution, too, but they didn’t opt out. And they didn’t pick up a gun and go to war. They filed a lawsuit against the School Board for violating their rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The lower courts agreed with the Witnesses and ruled that children couldn’t be compelled to recite the Pledge. But the School Board went to the Supreme Court which ruled 8 to 1, that if children wanted a public education, they had to recite the Pledge.

Supreme Court justices later said they were inundated with letters calling that ruling outrageous and wrong. Legal scholars and newspapers condemned it, too, but some Americans saw in it permission to use violence. They attacked the Witnesses, often with the help of law enforcement. They burned Kingdom Halls and assaulted over 1,500 Witnesses in 300 communities. That violence shocked a lot of people and Supreme Court Justices soon indicated that they’d like re-visit the case. So, in short order, another Jehovah’s Witness family filed suit and, only 3 years after its original ruling, the Supreme Court reversed itself and struck down the power of the state to force people to recite the pledge.

Here’s another story, worth remembering. It’s about a sixteen-year old girl named Barbara Johns. She loved to read and study and craved a decent education. But, she was not going to get it at her segregated school in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1951, which was built for 200 students but now had 500 packed in with her. Teachers held classes in tar paper shacks outside – they even held a class on the school bus.  Barbara Johns told her teachers about her frustration with these conditions when the White school nearby had plenty of room and top-notch supplies. One of her teachers said, kind of off-hand, “Why don’t you do something about it?” So she did.

She didn’t pick up a gun, either. She persuaded her classmates to go on strike. They marched into town holding hand-made signs saying, “we are tired of tar paper shacks, we want a new school.”

The students were few and disinherited, and the White School Board was mighty with a full inheritance and it said no. So the students asked the NAACP to come and meet them at their Baptist Church, which nurtured them, and plan next steps. The NAACP representatives were a little skeptical, they said later. These were just students. But when they got to that Baptist Church, they said, “the students’ morale was so high we didn’t have the heart to say “no.” We’ll back you, they said, but you’ve gotta up the ante. Don’t demand a better segregated school, demand an end to segregated schools and we’ll help you.

Of course, demanding that the disinherited receive a full inheritance, brings backlash. The School Board fired Barbara Johns’ principal and some of her teachers. White businesses cut off credit to black families in town. But Barbara’s case was added to four others all rolled into one called Brown v. Board of Education and the Supreme Court heard it in 1954. It was the only one of the cases making up Brown v. Board initiated by a teenager and it set our country on a long and slow path to a fuller inheritance for all of our children.

Between Barbara Johns in the 1950s and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1930s, was Fred Korematsu in 1942. He was just 23 years old then, born in Oakland, California, to Japanese-American parents, when the order came that Americans of Japanese descent had to leave everything, become disinherited, and go to internment camps. The young Fred Korematsu refused to go and he was arrested and imprisoned.

The American Civil Liberties Union heard of his case and helped him file a lawsuit against the United States government. They took it all the way to the Supreme Court, too. That court heard amped up hysteria from the Solicitor General about the alleged threat of Japanese Americans during this war and ruled that that the war justified their internment. But three Court Justices issued stinging dissents. The Washington Post called the decision “legalized racism.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, compared Fred Korematsu to Dred Scott. But Korematsu was forced into the Topaz internment camp in Utah, because the nation was at war, showing the irony of saying that war secures our freedom.

Years later, another lawyer dug into this case and found that the government, at this Supreme Court hearing, knowingly and willfully suppressed FBI and military intelligence reports that Japanese Americans posed no threat. Not long after, a federal judge formally vacated the Supreme Court decision. Korematsu, by now a Presbyterian elder of long standing, said that he was not seeking a pardon. “If anyone should do any pardoning,” he said, “I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people.”

So, three stories about ways in which ordinary Americans, here at home, saw things as they were and challenged it. They knew that words on paper and overseas wars wouldn’t bring the change they needed. Solidarity could. Action could. Pressure on power could, lawsuits could. They all drew values from their faith and from their houses of worship. Of course, they didn’t know the outcome when they acted. I’ve told stories that give us hope. There are a lot of other stories where the hard work for justice didn’t bring gains to those who acted but sometimes even more suffering. Sometimes the price of challenging power and injustice is high.

So, on this Memorial Day weekend, I am thinking about the gulf that still exists between our nation’s stated ideals and the reality for many people in this country. And I’m also thinking about the people on whose shoulders we stand, people like us who worked, sometimes at great sacrifice, to close that gap, to claim a full inheritance by mobilizing those around them to action, by challenging the powers that be, by demanding that no one be treated as a stranger, as a foreigner, as the book of Leviticus says, and by claiming the full legacy of justice, equity, and mercy, that is our right as human beings as we inherit God’s earth. Amen.