For nearly 70 years, Birmingham has honored veterans with its National Veterans Day Parade, the nation’s first and longest-running Veterans Day parade. This year’s parade kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Friday in downtown Birmingham. The following article, by Mike Oakley, longtime Master of Ceremonies for the parade and an Alabama Power employee, tells how Veterans Day and Birmingham’s prestigious event honoring veterans got their start
In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The site, on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., became a focal point of reverence for America’s veterans.
Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where unknown soldiers were buried in those nations’ highest places of honor (in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe). All three internments took place on Nov. 11.
World War I had officially ended in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, but fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). In November 1919 President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day – set aside to honor veterans of World War I.
A quarter century later, in 1945, the nation celebrated the end of a second world war – the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in U.S. history. A World War II veteran from Birmingham, Raymond Weeks, had an idea: to expand Armistice Day to honor all veterans.
In 1947 Weeks organized “National Veterans Day,” in his hometown, which included a parade and other festivities. Shortly afterwards he led a local delegation to Washington, urging then-Army Chief of Staff General Dwight Eisenhower to support a national holiday to honor all veterans.
U.S. Representative Edward Rees of Kansas, inspired by the idea, introduced legislation to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1954, Congress passed the bill and President Eisenhower signed it, establishing November 11 as Veterans Day.
In 1982 President Reagan honored Weeks with the Presidential Citizenship Medal for being the driving force for the national holiday. Weeks, who led the first National Veterans Day Parade in Birmingham, continued the annual tradition until his passing in 1985.
After Weeks’ death, Bill Voigt became the executive director of the event, which continued to grow. In 2013, local businessman Mark Ryan succeeded Voight as director.
Ryan said the annual event wouldn’t be successful without the ongoing support of numerous volunteers, supporters and sponsors. The Alabama Power Foundation is among the event’s supporting organizations.
The 2016 version of the Birmingham Veterans Day Parade will have a special addition among its 4,000 participants.