Brent Tomberlin

Brent Tomberlin

They are some of the most recognized words by Americans. They are still recited in schools and in places of meeting and ceremony each week in towns and cities across the country. Just like a lot of American symbols, they are not without controversy.

In 1892, in an effort to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to a “new world,” Daniel Sharp Ford, publisher of Youth’s Companion magazine, asked Francis Bellamy to compose words to a children’s pledge to recite in honor of America.

At the time, the country was experiencing what would become four major waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, as well as Asia. As these immigrants were assimilating into the country and making it the great cultural “melting pot.” Bellamy chose his words carefully in order to represent essential American truths.

Bellamy’s pledge went as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” There was no mention of the United States of America and the phrase “under God” had yet to be added.

As the Pledge of Allegiance developed and became more common, it included the “Bellamy Salute” where children held their right arm outstretched while reciting the pledge. With the rise of Hitler’s Nazism in the 1930s, Americans quit giving the salute because it seemed to mimic the one his supporters were giving him. Very few Americans wanted to appear to be supporting fascism.

Not everyone agreed with the pledge. In 1940 and 1943, there were two major Supreme Court challenges. The 1940 Minersville v. Gobitis case decided students had to recite the pledge regardless of religious belief. However, the court reversed this decision in West Virginia Schools vs. Barnette in 1943. Between these two cases, federal lawmakers passed a bill in 1942 amending the U.S. Flag Code which began the practice of putting one’s hand over the heart while reciting the words and facing the flag. Of course, all these changes were being made at the time of the Second World War when the President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt encouraged all Americans to make the country an “Arsenal of Democracy” so the war against totalitarianism could be won. Americans fighting for freedom needed to make sure freedoms were protected at home.

Challenges to freedom, especially through the courts, are a great mark for a free society. We may not enjoy the merits of each decision, but we can know and understand the principle about legislation protecting others against tyranny.

Like the popular issue of standing or kneeling for the national anthem, many have their own opinions about whether or not to stand and recite the pledge. People disagree about some of the language. Atheists and others don’t like the words “under God” in the pledge for a few reasons. Critics, perhaps, yearn to hold the pledge up as an ideal while picking the supposedly less ideal pieces out. It may not be able to be done.

Henry R. Luce, the world renowned 20th century publisher, called the century, “The American Century.” And it was. The country helped win two world wars, had the greatest economy in the world, won a Cold War, and eventually dominated an emerging space race. Yet, there were other reasons too.

When the highest law in the land, the Supreme Court, overturned their own decision in 1943 regarding the pledge, ruled wearing an armband to school to protest the Vietnam War was acceptable as silent speech (1969), allowed the sewing of an American flag into someone’s pants as a form of speech (1974), and supported an individual’s right to burn an American flag (1989), they proved the country valued freedom of speech even more than a pretended nationalism.

While the burning of an American flag is morally repugnant to the great majority of Americans, the right to do so speaks to the individual freedoms we Americans have. These decisions, as well as many others, remind us of the hard won battles of the past. They also remind us we are all Americans and can disagree with one another over these issues without coming to hate one another. After all, some countries don’t value free speech at all.

Recently, I asked a member of a local Boy Scout troop what it means to him when he leads a flag retirement ceremony at different times during the year. He talked about wanting to make the ceremony as respectful as possible because of the sacrifices of people who fought and served under the flag. He hopes to show the other scouts his gratitude for those who came before and are serving still.

That’s a heck of a reason to stand and pledge; especially, on this Independence Day.

Brent Tomberlin is a social studies teacher at South Caldwell High School.

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