How an Alabama WWII vet created Veterans Day
With November 11 falling on a Sunday this year, the official recognition of all of the American heroes who have served as members of the nation’s armed services will be observed on Monday.
As people around our nation celebrate the United States’ 64th annual Veterans Day, Alabamians can take special pride in knowing that this occasion was inspired by one legendary veteran from the Yellowhammer State.
And while Veterans Day parades are always memorable events, those taking in the Magic City’s annual parade (Monday starting at 1:30 p.m.) are carrying on an especially powerful legacy, whether they realize it or not.
In 1945, a World War II veteran from Birmingham, Raymond Weeks, led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to urge then-Army Chief of Staff General Dwight Eisenhower to support their efforts to create a national holiday honoring all American veterans.
Consider that since 1919, Americans had celebrated Armistice Day each year on November 11, the anniversary of the end of World War I. It was President Woodrow Wilson that year who declared it a day of remembrance and reflection to honor the bravery and heroism of World War I veterans.
Then, it was Weeks, some 26 years later, who hoped to expand the holiday to honor all U.S. veterans. While Eisenhower was receptive to his idea immediately, he was not in a position to unilaterally make the change quite yet in 1945.
This did not stop Weeks’ dream from coming to fruition. The Alabama veteran took it upon himself in 1947 to organize an unofficial “National Veterans Day,” which included parades and other festivities. That year, it was indeed Birmingham that held the nation’s first ever Veterans Day parade.
Seven years later, with Eisenhower now occupying the White House, Congressman Ed Rees from Eisenhower’s home state of Kansas pushed a bill through Congress establishing Veterans Day. Eisenhower proudly signed it into law almost a decade after Weeks had first come to him with the idea.
And on one historic Veterans Day, November 11, 1982, President Ronald Reagan presented Weeks with the Presidential Citizens Medal, declaring him the “Father of Veterans Day.” Reagan, in a moving ceremony at the White House, described Weeks as a person who “devoted his life to serving others, his community, the American veteran, and his nation.”
Indeed, for 38 consecutive years (from 1947 until his death on May 6, 1985) after Weeks organized the nation’s very first Veterans Day parade in his hometown of Birmingham, this Alabama hero served as the city’s director of the National Veterans Day Celebration.
So as Alabamians around the state attend their local Veterans Day parades this year, they’ll not only be honoring America’s courageous servicemen and women, they’ll also be carrying on the legacy of an American hero and Alabama legend — Raymond Weeks.
To quote Reagan once more, “So let us go forth from here, having learned the lessons of history, confident in the strength of our system, and anxious to pursue every avenue toward peace. And on this Veterans Day, we will remember and be firm in our commitment to peace, and those who died in defense of our freedom will not have died in vain.”
Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn