Human rights and Memorial DayPublished 12:00pm Thursday, May 28, 2009
One of the joys of being an historian is discovering that the past is unpredictable. By that I mean, we think we know what happened in the past. And we act on that understanding. Yet, when we begin to study the past, we find that it is far different from our assumptions. And often, as in the case of my current column, the discovered past provides a justification for revising the present.
In looking up the origins of Memorial Day, I read an article in the May 24, 2009 Charleston Post and Courier by Brian Hicks. Based on his recent reading of David W. Blight, American History Professor at Yale University, Hicks discovered that at the termination of the Civil War, former slaves dug up the bodies of their fellow slaves and with a procession of nearly 10,000 gave the bodies a proper funeral. Their leaders gave sermons and prayers and they called May 1, 1865 “Decoration Day.”
This discovery has led me to think that Decoration Day, later called Memorial Day, was really a celebration and witness of the human right to be buried—equal to all. And it was a ceremony for people who had been deprived of their human rights. From this point of view, we should not only recognize the valiant feats and sacrifices of our soldiers, but also the lives of those who have been tortured, imprisoned, and killed for supporting human rights for all of us.
The biographies of these human rights defenders reveal a global constituency of men and women who are single-handedly standing up against repression, military dictatorship, and threats of personal sacrifice. Kerry Kennedy in Speak Truth to Power, has detailed the lives of fifty heroic struggles for human rights in the personal stories of each activist. What is wondrous about this book is evidence it gives for the worldwide support for people’s freedoms. They are drawn from over forty countries, ranging from every continent.
The book is dedicated to Digna Ochoa from Mexico. In her own words she describes her commitment and values: “I am a nun, who started life as a lawyer. I sought a religious community with a social commitment, and the protection of human rights is one of the things that my particular community focuses on. They have permitted me to work with an organization that fights for human rights, called Centro Pro, supporting me economically, morally, and spiritually. This has been a process of building a life project, from a social commitment to a spiritual one with a mystical aspect.”
Because her work was often involved in defending people from the oppression of the government, Ochoa was repeatedly threatened with death. Unidentified assailants attacked, abducted, and harassed her and broke into her offices. “The Inter-American Court of Human Rights required the Mexican government to take steps to assure the safety of her staff. But, on October19, 2001, a group of armed men broke into Ochoa’s office and brutally killed her.” No one has been accused of her murder.
Ochoa’s story honors her as a soldier for human rights. Honoring her on Memorial Day puts her in the ranks of soldiers who have defended and died for our liberties. Digna Ochoa represents a spiritual response to terror and to the denial of human rights.
But she is not alone. Kerry Kennedy’s book includes equally terrifying, dramatic, and heroic biographies in Togo, Romania, Liberia, Spain, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Cambodia, and the United States.
While I watched President Obama express his eulogy for American servicemen and women at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, I recalled the biography of Koigi wa Wamwere from Kenya. He is an eloquent speaker, and an artistic creator of poetry, plays, and books. Born in a poor family in a forest community, he won a scholarship to Cornell University, graduating in 1973. He began a political career by opposing the ruling elite. Consequently he was jailed without trial fyears. Later he won a seat in the Parliament, but soon bucked against the government’s authoritarian rule.
For many years he lived in exile where he fended off several assassination attempts. In 1995, he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison and six lashes. “His lifetime of unrelenting activism for democracy and nonviolence has meant detention, torture, and imprisonment for much of his adult life.” His biographer concludes, “He has emerged from those experiences with a wisdom and a sense of peace almost beyond imagination.”
Besides the moving stories of human compassion and action, and the superb photographs of each activist, why do we need to read this book?
The main reason is that it provides a direct connection with the culture of human rights in each of these countries. And this understanding is important to recognizing the cultural diversity and similarity of all the foreigners and immigrants in our own community. This history is as important to recognize and associate with as the various foods,
clothing, songs, and cultures of all the international contacts we make.
Deciration Day or Memorial Day is an honor and a civic duty we can
provide for our own soldiers . We can extend the same respect and civility for all those who have suffered to preserve their and our democracy, the dignity of all human beings, and the peaceful security of the world around us. Let us apply the historical lessons of the creation of Decoration Day in 1865 to include all those who have been enslved through the denial of their human rights.
Richard Kagan is a Professor Emeritus at Hamline University. He is a Fergus Falls-area resident and member of the city’s human rights commission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org