The Problem With The Pledge Of Allegiance

The Problem With The Pledge Of Allegiance

They tell you to put your hand over your heart, signifying your willingness to commit your life, and pledge that life to a country you do not yet understand with a history you will likely never learn. You’re five.

By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, August 25, 2020

On February 4, 2019, Jabari Talbot, an eleven-year-old black student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Florida, was arrested after he told a substitute teacher that he refused to stand for the Pledge Of Allegiance. School officials insisted that Talbot was not arrested for refusing to say the pledge, but for causing a disturbance after a police officer and the Dean of Students were called to remove the sixth grader. There is no question that students in Florida are not required to participate in the Pledge. There was no question that the arrest was entirely unwarranted. There should have been no reason for the substitute (who was later reprimanded and banned from working in the school district ever again) to call the authorities. At best this was a school disciplinary issue that should have been dealt with by the school and the parent of the student. Instead, the child was arrested and suspended. The case was eventually dropped after rapper Jay-Z got involved and paid to represent the youth in court. But not everyone gets Jay-Z.

The concept of pledging your allegiance to a flag was designed for school children, in an effort to encourage fealty to one’s country, by Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister from New York. The original pledge was written in 1887 by Captain George T. Balch, a veteran of the Civil War, who later became auditor of the New York Board of Education. Bellamy did not approve of the pledge as Balch had written it, referring to the text as “too juvenile and lacking in dignity.” Balch’s version read, “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!”

Bellamy intended the pledge to be used by all countries, which is why the original pledge simply read, ”I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

As a socialist, he had initially also considered using the words “equality” and “fraternity,” but decided against it, knowing that the state superintendents of education were against equality for women and Blacks.

Children salute the flag at a school. Pittsburgh 1934.

The original Bellamy Salute, as it was known, was first published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. The publisher of The Youth’s Companion magazine which published Bellamy’s pledge, is thought to have sold flags to about 26,000 schools by 1892. Motivated not only by patriotism but also by a desire to sell subscriptions, the magazine came up with the idea for a salute to the flag, something that would promote national loyalty but also encourage the purchase of both flags and magazines.

The original description read:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

Shortly thereafter, the pledge was begun with the right hand over the heart, and after reciting “to the Flag,” the arm was extended toward the Flag, palm-down. If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like the Nazi salute, you’d not only be correct, but you would not be alone, and by World War II it was changed to keeping the right hand over the heart throughout.

In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added to read, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

In 1954, in response to what he considered “Godless Communism,” President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we know today. Today it reads, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy’s daughter objected to this final alteration, but was flatly ignored.

So, like our own country’s history, the history of the Pledge, is complicated.

Despite what many Americans think, the pledge is not some fundamental piece of sacrosanct history, bound by blood and soil to the Constitution and the founding fathers themselves. It was a theatrical performance, designed for school children, by a socialist minister, not even intended to be specific to America at all, and initially used to sell magazines and flags.

The military influence should also be noted, given the history of such groups as the Hitler Youth in Germany, as particularly troubling. As it was with the Nazi’s, it is a means to indoctrinate children in public schools, into acts of blind patriotism with no context or historical reference. This is not to say that the pledge is inherently evil, but it is of the same mind that believes in indoctrinating the young for political purposes.

In the precedent-setting 1943 Supreme Court decision (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette Court) the Court reversed itself from a decision against the Jehovah’s Witnesses just three years earlier, and held that “the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,”wrote Justice Robert Jackson, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

In another incident in 2018, India Landry, a senior at Windfern High School in Houston, Texas was expelled after she refused to stand for the Pledge. According to Texas law, a student must recite the pledge unless they have written permission from a parent or guardian allowing them to opt out. She later settled a lawsuit with the school, but the law still stands. While you may not be forced to pledge your allegiance to the flag according to the Supreme Court, the States are still able to make it very difficult for you to refuse. How this has not been defined as having a “chilling effect” on free speech can only be attributed to the notion that children are not full citizens under the law and do not possess all rights granted in the Constitution.

So since children are not full citizens, with little First Amendment protection under the law, we allow them to be programmed to believe what the State wants them to believe.

They tell them then, that this is our flag, not yours. Now stand at military attention and put your right hand over your heart, signifying your willingness to commit your life. Turn and face the flag and pledge your life to a country you do not yet understand with a history you will likely never accurately learn. Not to mention, that if you happen to have Black or Brown skin, this flag that you’re being asked to die for, has for most of history, not represented you at all. 

That’s pretty heavy for kindergarten.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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