Why Memorial Day is Bigger Than the Barbecue


Drill down on the grill out, to find the true meaning of a righteous Memorial Day.

Grills are centers of gravity that pull family and friends together. And as Oakland showed us recently, diffusers of charcoal can be transformed into weapons of resistance.[i] Barbecue and the cook-out has been a part of celebrating freedom since the original Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day.

In 1966, Capitol Hill and the Whitehouse officially recognized Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. That’s because on May 5, 1866, the town shut down business in order to honor fallen Civil War soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and wreaths. It was a solemn day of prayer and remembrance. Because of the emphasis on decorating the soldiers’ graves, these yearly commemorations were known as Decoration Day. Eventually the day became known as Memorial Day.

Martyrs of the Race Course

Formerly enslaved men unearthed a mass grave of 250 Union soldiers to give them each a memorial. On May 1, 1865, the newly whitewashed graves honored the Martyrs of the Race Course. Charleston, South Carolina

However, a year before Waterloo had their city-wide observance, there was a massive gathering in Charleston, SC, for essentially the same purpose. The site of the commemoration was a former horse race track that had been used as an outdoor prison camp by the Confederates. Prior to being driven out by the U.S. Army, the champions of slavery buried over 250 dead union troops in a mass grave on the property. After the area had been pried from the Southern traitors, formerly enslaved men unearthed the ingloriously dumped bodies and gave them honorable, patriotic burials. They built a fence around the new graveyard and whitewashed it. Then, on the archway of the entrance, they inscribed, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, approximately 10,000 recently freed African Americans gathered to honor union troops at what is now known as Hampton Park.[ii] They prayed, read from the Bible, sang songs like “John Brown’s Body” and “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” made speeches, decorated the graves with flowers, infantrymen did marching drills, and yes – they had a cook-out.[iii]

Most people don’t know this part of Memorial Day’s history because the place where Memorial Day began by honoring dead Union troops is named after Wade Hampton. The Martyrs of the Race Course were displaced in favor of a plantation-owning, U.S. general. Hampton defected to wage war against the U.S. to protect his “state’s rights” to own other human beings.

Alternate Memorials – Just a pile of rocks aren’t they?

In Joshua chapter 4, Moses’ successor had the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel pick up large stones from the bottom of the Jordan River. Gathering them was made possible by God’s providence in parting the waters of the Jordan so the Israelites could cross on dry land. This miracle was a memorial in itself. It reminded a whole new generation of what God had done 40 years ago by parting the Red Sea when Moses led the multitude out of Egypt.

How I Got Over: Israel commemorated God’s deliverance through the Red Sea with a pile of stones, a conversation starter.

Once everyone crossed the Jordan and the men gathered their 12 stones, they stacked them up to form a monument. It was a stone memorial to remember the day that God parted the waters. The stones gathered from the bottom were physical evidence of this feat. It wasn’t expensive or ornate, but it accomplished a purpose.

When children saw their parents visiting and rejoicing at the sight of a simple pile of rocks, it prompted questions. What do these stones mean to you? Then parents provided their own documentaries to the next generation. Do you have some simple crafts that you can pass down through the generations to serve as conversation starters?

Alternate Memorials – Are you trying to poison me or what?

While Moses was still alive, God had given the people some other memorials. The yearly Passover meal was a memorial of how God’s angel killed the first born of the Egyptians in order to force pharaoh to finally release the Hebrews. Instead of a cook-out, this feast was a cook-in. Even so, people stood up while they ate. This was a reminder that when God gives the signal you have to be ready to move.

The seasoning was a little strange, though. The meat was purposely marinated in bitter herbs. Why? Exactly. When people (especially the youth) partook of the meal, it prompted the question, “Why is this meat so bitter?” That provided a teaching moment that would be permanently etched into their taste buds. They would have a gustatory (taste perception) trigger to remind them of how bitter the chastening rod had been. The repulsive prompt was meant to renew their vow of “Never Again.”

A similar principle is at work with God’s list of clean and unclean meats in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Don’t worry. No bitter herbs this time. God normally wants us to spice up our lives and enjoy tasty meals, except for times like Passover or fasting for one purpose or another. However, sometimes we act as though we’re being deprived when things are withheld for our own benefit. Although the food is fine, we get bitter and ask why we can’t eat certain things. There’s two short answers for this: 1) Trust Him in this area, since He’s proven Himself in other ways, and 2) Look at the longevity and quality of life of those who follow His plan.

Alternate Memorials – What Can I do?

God also commanded Moses to teach the people to rest every seventh day. The weekly Sabbath rest wasn’t something brand new. God established it in Genesis 2, to cap off creation week. However, just as many African American family trees have been separated from their roots, the Hebrews had been estranged from the concept of rest. In Exodus 20:8-11, the reason for rest is to remember our value comes from being created in the image of God. As we

We can memorialize the Creator and His creation every week on the Sabbath. We can also remember to relieve the suffering of His people.

contemplate His forethought in designing all the interdependent ecosystems of the world, it should develop mindfulness for how we treat each other and our environment.

In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the same command is given for a different reason. This time the reference point for the Sabbath is emancipation from slavery. The application is to extend the liberation that God has blessed you with by doing one simple thing: Give the people in your sphere of influence the day off.

The challenge most children have is when their parents tell them all the stuff they can’t do on the Sabbath, they want to know what they can do. You can help the sick, the injured, the hungry, the lonely, to experience rest by relieving their suffering. Your compassion might be all someone needs to experience to believe there is a God who loves them. Once you get your focus off of your own concerns, you’ll be surprised at how fast the sun goes down and signals the end of another Sabbath.

Counterfeit Memorials

The Confederates didn’t like the fact that Memorial Day seemed to be geared toward Union soldiers who died in the Civil War and neglected their genteel warriors. Therefore, many Southern states renewed their rebellion by establishing their own Confederate Memorial Days and continue to do so in one form or another.

There are also some counterfeits we have substituted for the Biblical memorials mentioned above. Instead of simple decorations that draw attention to how God has blessed us collectively and wants to do even more to elevate humanity as a whole, we chase after trinkets to display our individual status. How can we witness about a selfless God while exhibiting self-indulgence?

Instead of clean foods recommended by our Lord of liberation, we indulge in some of the most disgusting parts of the most disgusting animals. Sometimes we even say we do this to honor Him. How do you honor the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world by eating the guts of animals that gulp down the refuse of the world?

Instead of accepting the weekly reservation set by God to commune with Him, we change the date and time. How do we get the nerve to tell Him to rendezvous with us after standing Him up the day before?

May we enjoy our food, family, and friends, while we remember that there are bigger things than barbecue on holidays like Memorial Day.


[i] https://www.bustle.com/p/photos-of-oaklands-protest-cookout-are-inspiring-the-story-even-more-so-9080720

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vgp1jgZnh8

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/opinion/30blight.html

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