The Pledge of Allegiance has been the official national pledge of the United States of America since June 22, 1942. Yet, it is rarely heard by the average American outside of sporting events these days. And worse still, it has now reached such a level of controversy that even city councils are objecting to its use.
As someone who grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, I find myself saddened and conflicted. While I understand and agree with some of the objections people have over its use in schools, I still find it emotionally stirring when a crowd of people stand up together and give voice to their shared patriotism.
In 1969, comedian Red Skelton gave a deeply moving monologue on his television show explaining the meaning of the words in the Pledge of Allegiance.
With his trademark rumpled hat in hand, Red Skelton starts out humble and funny, but his voice quickly grows with patriotic pride and conviction. He doesn’t just recite the pledge, first he tells a funny and moving story of a teacher’s power to awaken the child and impact the adult. Then he slowly and carefully brings to life every word of the Pledge of Allegiance. He expands their meaning as only a person can who loves the ideals of those word as much as the real object of those words.
Through it all Red Skelton reminds us that while our flag is a symbol, our pledge, our commitment is to our nation and each other.
Powerful political stuff. And, of course, with power comes controversy. Which has followed the Pledge of Allegiance from it’s very inception.
Francis Bellamy wrote the pledge as a 15 second standing recital accompanied by a raised arm and hand salute to be given during the flag raising ceremony of the public schools’ quadricentennial Columbus Day celebration in 1892. This was the pledge he envisioned:
‘I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty, equality and justice for all.’
Bellamy, a socialist, wanted to include the word “equality” but knew the state superintendents of education would object. Equality for all would include women who wouldn’t have the right to vote until 1920 and African Americans who would still be legally segregated until 1954. So equality was out in 1892.
And sadly, nearly a 120 years after the pledge was written, “equality” still isn’t in.
In 1924, against Bellamy’s objections, the National Flag Conference with backing from the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance from ‘my Flag,’ to ‘the Flag of the United States of America.’ This was, apparently, an effort to clarify loyalties for new immigrants.
Whether intended or not, the Pledge of Allegiance immediately took on a more hierarchical tone. Ordinary Americans were no longer standing shoulder to shoulder publicly proclaiming their unity and mutual ownership in their flag and republic. Americans were now pledging their support to a separate, higher power from themselves — the United States of America.
Least anyone think the original ‘my flag’ was too socialist in nature, look to the final sentence of the Declaration of Independence. This was the very last line each and every one of the 56 signatories read and agreed to before inking their name on the document:
“… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The founding father made their pledge not just to a system, a document or an ideal. They made their pledge to each other.
In the final words of his monologue, Red Skelton voices his concern that Congress’ act of adding “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, might cause the pledge to be viewed as a public prayer and removed from our schools. He was right. The Pledge of Allegiance was dropped from many public schools. But the “under god” was only part of the problem.
There were shades of socialism and fascism in the original “nazi” style “Bellamy salute“ which President Roosevelt changed to a hand-over-heart salute in 1942. Then too, there were the never-ending issues of compulsion and consent.
In 1940 the Supreme Court ruled that students in public schools could be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed itself concluding that “compulsory unification of opinion” violates the First Amendment. For children under 18, there can be no consent. Unfortunately, legal cases are still being made.
I hope the Pledge of Allegiance comes back into favor with the American people. On a voluntary basis.
It may not be perfect and it is clearly not written in stone. Maybe it needs to be changed again. Maybe now is the time to add “equality”. Or maybe instead of pledging our allegiance to a symbol, we could pledge our allegiance to each other.
After all, the power of the Pledge of Allegiance comes from the voices and the actions of the American people united in their common goals. An Allegiance that is not given freely and knowledgeably is nothing less then tyranny.
And here is another radical thought. Maybe, just maybe the important part of our pledge is not not the words themselves, but the American people standing up together — united of their own free will.
So the next time I place my hand over my heart to pledge my allegiance to my country and countrymen, this is what I will be saying – if only to myself:
I pledge allegiance, to the people of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which we stand, as one nation, indivisible, with Liberty, Equality and Justice for all.
For those of you who haven’t seen Red Skelton’s Pledge of Allegiance: