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Gettysburg Address offers significance for Memorial Day


On Memorial Day, we remember our fallen soldiers.

For several years I have visited California’s oldest secular cemetery, the Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose, every Memorial Day to silently express my gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives so we can bask in the sunshine of freedom and democracy.

Veterans and politicians make moving speeches and observe a minute of silence on this hallowed day as the U.S. flag flutters in the breeze, rustling the surrounding sycamore trees. Doves are released as symbols of unity and peace. Small flags line rows and rows of headstones of 14,000 veterans with names that connect the living to the dead: Joseph Milligan of Tennessee (World War I), Charles Harding of Colorado (World War II), Andrew Montello of California (Korea), and on and on.

This year, I will do something different. I will carry a copy of the address President Abraham Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg, Penn., on Nov. 19, 1863, and read it as I walk alongside the graves at Oak Hill. More than 160 years later, Lincoln’s timeless words speak to us with an urgency we must heed.

In particular, two topics demand our attention in this fateful election year. First, as much as we would like our democracy to be strong, it is, in reality, a fragile entity, as the Jan. 6 insurrection showed. Unless we are vigilant about safeguarding it, democracy can succumb to autocracy. Second, the most powerful tool to ensure the flourishing of democracy is to exercise our sacred right to vote. Ignoring or neglecting this right can open the gate to tyranny. Complacency is truly the enemy of good governance.

As Lincoln saw it, the Civil War tested the very survival of the nation “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Slavery, the antithesis of equality, was the evil of his time, and until it was eliminated, even at the horrific cost of a North-South war, Lincoln knew America would not endure.

We may not have slavery today, but the challenges are as daunting. Despite making modest progress in race relations since Lincoln’s time, the undercurrent of racism in many facets of our lives continues to undermine America. And political division over issues such as reproductive freedom, affordable health care, an unfair tax code, gun violence, volatile borders and climate change also threaten the integrity of the Constitution and the survival of our nation.

I request my fellow Americans on this Memorial Day to conscientiously read the Gettysburg Address. It comprises just 272 words and took Lincoln only two minutes to deliver to the gathering of 15,000, yet it has the power to evoke the noble and the transcendent in each of us, a nation of almost 335 million.

The courage, compassion and vision inherent in the Gettysburg Address should persuade us not to think North or South, Blue or Red, coastal or inland, or working class or elite when we vote in the November election but instead, to think America.

As in Lincoln’s time, “the great task remaining before us” today is keeping our nation whole. We can do it by resolving that those who “gave the last full measure of devotion … shall not have died in vain.”

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