Obama observes Memorial Day at Arlington cemetery

Published 1:30 am Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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.”

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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.”

The president, who did not serve in the military, noted his grandfather’s Army service during World War II and his status as a father of daughters ages 10 and 7. Unlike many of those in the audience, Obama said he can’t know what it’s like to walk into battle or lose a child.

“But I do know this. I am humbled to be the commander in chief of the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” he said to applause.

Among those who signed petition to not send a wreath to the Confderate Memorial is 1960s radical William Ayers. The University of Chicago education professor helped found the radical group the Weather Underground that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol. Republicans tried to link Obama and Ayers during the presidential campaign because they lived in the same neighborhood and served on a charity board together.

Men and women in uniform saluted Obama’s motorcade as it entered the hallowed burial ground that is Arlington cemetery. Some in the audience of several thousands waved American flags as Obama stepped to the microphone.

Before the ceremony, the president had a private breakfast at the White House with people who have lost loved ones in war.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, have made veterans and military families a priority. His budget proposal includes the largest, single-year funding increase in the last three decades to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Later in the day, the president headed to Fort Belvoir, Va., to play golf.