Obama observes Memorial Day at Arlington cemetery

Published: May. 25, 2009 at 3:00 PM CDT
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President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has praised the men and women of America's fighting forces as the "best of America."

The president spoke after participating in a solemn Memorial Day tradition, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. It is the burial ground for American veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War.

In brief remarks after the wreath-laying, Obama wondered why the country's fallen warriors were willing to bear the heaviest burden.

He said a willingness to risk their lives for people they've never met "is why they are the best of America."

Obama also sought to avoid a racial controversy by sending flowers to a monument for Confederate soldiers and to a memorial honoring blacks who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama sought to dodge racial controversy on Memorial Day, sending wreaths to a monument for Confederate soldiers and other flowers to a memorial honoring more than 200,000 African-Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Obama, the nation's first black president, planned to continue tradition and have aides leave a wreath at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, the 600-acre site that once was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's estate. But the White House also will send a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington's historically black U Street neighborhood.

Presidents traditionally visit Arlington to personally leave a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a marble structure housing the remains of unidentified U.S. military members who died during war. Presidents then have aides deliver wreaths to other memorials or monuments, generally including the Confederate memorial.

But a group of about 60 professors last week sent a petition to the White House asking Obama to avoid a memorial for Confederate military members who died during the war between the North and the South.

"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 petition said. "This implies that the humanity of Africans and African-Americans is of no significance."

Among the professors who signed the letter is 1960s radical William Ayers, a University of Chicago education professor who helped found the radical group the Weather Underground that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol. Republicans tried to link Obama with Ayers during the presidential campaign; the two lived in the same neighborhood and served on a charity board together.

The African American Civil War Memorial had been discussed as a compromise in recent days.

"President Obama, why not send two wreaths?" Kirk Savage, an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. "One to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery and another to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which commemorates the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for liberation from slavery in the Union armed forces."

The White House hoped to sidestep the distraction and spend Obama's first Memorial Day as president speaking in honor of the nation's veterans and their families. He scheduled a private breakfast at the White House with family members who had lost loved ones in war.

In person, Obama planned to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and then speak about the nation's military members who died in battle.

"This is not only a time for celebration, it is also a time to reflect on what this holiday is all about; to pay tribute to our fallen heroes; and to remember the servicemen and women who cannot be with us this year because they are standing post far from home - in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world," Obama said during his weekly radio and Internet address ahead of the holiday.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, have made veterans and military families a priority during his young administration. Obama's budget proposed the largest single-year funding increase in the last three decades to revamp the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Our fighting men and women - and the military families who love them - embody what is best in America. And we have a responsibility to serve all of them as well as they serve all of us," Obama said during his radio address.

"And yet, all too often in recent years and decades, we, as a nation, have failed to live up to that responsibility. We have failed to give them the support they need or pay them the respect they deserve. That is a betrayal of the sacred trust that America has with all who wear - and all who have worn - the proud uniform of our country."

The president also plans to send flowers to the USS Maine Memorial and the Spanish American War Memorial.