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What we should remember this Memorial Day

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On Aug. 6, 1944, Richard Kemper, my uncle, was killed while commanding a company in the Battle of the Hedgerows, the allies’ effort to push the Germans out of Normandy and out of France after D-Day and the fall of Cherbourg.  He was 24 years old.

Subsequently my grandparents, Adolph and Helen Kemper, purchased a plot of land next to the high school he attended in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and turned it into a memorial to him and the other servicewomen and servicemen from Mamaroneck killed in World War II.  Of course, they expected visitors to the park on Memorial Day to pay tribute to their bravery.  However, they didn’t want those visitors to then go back to their backyard barbecues and forget about what led to the death of Richard and so many millions of other fighting women and men.

Our war veterans were brave, yes.  But so were those they fought against.  Hence, it is not their courage alone that we should celebrate on Memorial Day.  Rather as Frederick Douglas put it in a Declaration Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1871, we do not want “to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause.”  In World War II that cause had to do with defeating fascism while defending the enlightenment values embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Richard and Adolph Kemper.

The enlightenment, wrote Harvard professor E. O. Wilson, was an “Icarian flight of the mind…A vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights…It launched the modern era…then it failed.”  Hence, the best way to honor our veterans is to dedicate ourselves in their memory to teaching young people how and why it failed and then encouraging them to search for ways to give it flight again.  That is the reason my grandparents located Richard Kemper Memorial Park by Mamaroneck High school 75 years ago.  And that, too, is the reason the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation was founded in 2005.

The Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation (khref.org) sponsors two human rights essay contests for high school students:  one for students in the U.S. and one for students who are citizens and residents of other countries.  The essays are due on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the day in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said at the time, “the realization that the fragrant violation of human rights by Nazi and fascist countries sowed the seeds of the last world war provided the impetus for the drafting of the UDHR.”

And as the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Secretary General of the UN, General Kofi Annan, noted in a speech at the University of the West Indies in 1998, “without education, we cannot see beyond ourselves and our narrow surroundings to the reality of global interdependence. Without education, we cannot realize how peoples of other races and religions share the same dreams, the same hopes. Without education, we cannot recognize the universality of human aims and aspirations.”

And as Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights put it in 2018, “every step towards greater implementation of the human rights agenda is an act of prevention – strengthening the bonds between communities and reinforcing inclusive development and peace. Every step away from it tugs us down, towards suffering, injustice, hatred, and conflict.”

Therefore, as the UDHR itself proclaims, we are called upon to “strive by teaching and education” to promote respect for human rights.   And with nationalism on the rise around the world and Russia threatening to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, that is one of the most important things we should remember as we pay tribute to Richard Kemper and our other servicewomen and servicemen past and present this Memorial Day.

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