When I enlisted in the US Navy on August 5, 1995, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. I did not pledge to a flag. I did not swear an oath to stand during the national anthem. My pledge was to uphold a legal document that this nation’s democracy was founded on by a group of idealists who wanted a more equal form of government.
I am hoping the readers of this short essay ask themselves an important question – “why do I say the pledge or why don’t I say the pledge?” Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. So, if you are a flag pledger and anthem stander, “why?” If you sit, kneel and refuse to repeat with the rest of the herd, “why?” Do you say the pledge because you were conditioned to in grade school, middle school and high school? Or have you put deep thought into every word and think, “yes, this is the pledge for me.” Maybe you have a grandfather who served in WWII and you think of him when you pledge. Yes, I want you to do something other than just read this blog. Please ask yourself why you pledge or don’t pledge. This Sunday while you are watching a game, are you standing in your living room with your hand over heart during the national anthem? Or are you raiding the fridge one last time because you don’t want to miss the game or the commercials?
Why did Traci Ellis choose the words that she did to describe the flag? Has anyone asked her? I know Traci personally and I know that she lost a family member to police brutality, an unwarranted shooting. How can she feel anything but rage? Do you know what it is like to be pulled over and harassed by police simply because you have a different skin color? Think of your family. If one of your family members had lost his or her life because of a racially-motivated shooting, would you be outraged?
I remember working at the Yorkville Amoco shortly after high school. It was the early 90’s before cell phones when the cool kids carried pagers. One cold night when I was working a second shift, two young black men entered the gas station, freezing. Apparently the young men had been detained by the Kendall County Sheriff. They were picked up in Oswego and taken into custody in Yorkville. The police found nothing after a search and couldn’t charge them with any wrong-doing. The boys were stranded 7 miles away from their vehicle in subzero temperatures. The police wouldn’t take them back to their car. I told the young men that I would give them a ride at the end of my shift. The Kendall police officers all filled their vehicles up at this gas station. Of course they noticed the young men waiting for their ride. When the officers heard what I was going to do, they all told me I was making a mistake because these young men were drug dealers. Really? Then why didn’t you charge them? I pushed back and asked them why they hadn’t been taken into custody. One eventually explained it to me, “John, the good people of Kendall County don’t want to see their property values take a hit. We keep the riff raff out. We’re just doing our job.” Really? So they were going to make them walk 7 miles in freezing temperatures along snowy roads without sidewalks because they were afraid that these young men might be moving to Kendall County? If this had happened to anyone reading this blog, would you be outraged?
Another response that black people in my life have expressed is fear. Last year shortly after the murder of Philando Castile, I remember my roommate (he is black) telling me how he was no longer going out on the weekends because he didn’t want any trouble. He no longer wanted to take the risk and was going to limit his travel to the daily trip to and from work. It reminded me of living in West Africa during a coupe attempt and the periodic military-enforced curfews. How is it that in the United States of America 13% of the population has to consider that a routine traffic stop might get lethal?
The thing that impressed me about Traci Ellis is that she was not afraid and her outrage turned to courage. After making her toilet paper comment, she started receiving death threats. She took them seriously and faced that possibility. We traded text messages the night of her board meeting and I offered my support. I had my own board meeting in Aurora so I was not able to attend the Elgin meeting. I knew she was facing a large audience and people calling for her resignation. It was clear that the death threats had taken their toll and that she was taking them seriously, but pushing forward courageously. She understood that if she didn’t attend the board meeting that the white supremacists’ grip of fear would grow stronger. Our short text exchange was raw, real and very powerful. Few people have impressed me with the level of courage that Traci demonstrated that night.
Change only happens at the edge of controversy. Complacency and acceptance of injustice are the enemies of justice. We need more people in public office like Traci Ellis who are willing to tell it like it is, challenge the status quo and not back down from what they believe.
My friend, Mary Shesgreen attended the Elgin School Board meeting to speak up and support Traci. She sent a report to the Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice. The majority of public comments supported Traci’s right to free speech and highlighted her tireless public service. During the pledge Traci remained silent and supporters in the audience took a knee.
As a veteran, I support Colin Kaeprnick and fellow revolutionary, Traci Ellis in their bold words and actions – free speech. I also deeply admire their courage to challenge the status quo.
The six other board members who serve with me in East Aurora know that I also do not say the pledge of allegiance. I was elected to the East Aurora School Board in 2015. For the first few meetings I went along with the crowd, not really thinking about my actions. Then, I started to watch the tragic details of the LaQuan McDonald murder unfold. Rahm Emanuel had the video of the young man’s murder hidden until he had won re-election in April of 2015. Do readers remember that video of a Chicago Police officer pumping 16 bullets into the teenagers lifeless and unarmed body? I remember standing in the board room and saying the words, “with liberty and justice for all” and thinking, “really?” Do we live in a just world when a wealthy hedge fund manager like Rahm Emanuel can cover up the cold-blooded murder of a young black man simply to get re-elected and use the office to benefit his wealthy friends like the Pritzker family? Is that justice for all?
I went home and did some research on the history of the pledge of allegiance. Did you know that we started saying it in schools across America because a nationalist and author who worked for a youth magazine, Francis Bellamy, wrote the pledge at the direction of the magazine’s owner, Daniel Sharp Ford. It should not surprise you that Ford’s popular family magazine, Youth Companion, also sold flags. Other historical accounts say that flags were given away free with a subscription to the magazine.
Outside of the flag-selling profit motivations for the magazine, the author felt that the pledge would help unite the nation after the civil war and would be a good way to properly indoctrinate immigrants to America. An excerpt from the September 2015 copy of the Smithsonian Magazine captures some of Bellamy’s other writings about the flag pledge. “as a writer and publicist at the Companion, he let ’em rip. In a series of speeches and editorials that were equal parts marketing, political theory and racism, he argued that Gilded Age capitalism, along with “every alien immigrant of inferior race,” eroded traditional values, and that pledging allegiance would ensure “that the distinctive principles of true Americanism will not perish as long as free, public education endures.” Read more at SmithsonianMag.com
In 1923-1924 a movement to add the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” to the pledge as a way to clarify to immigrants which country they were pledging allegiance to.
The initial flag pledge in 1892 included a Hitler-style, right hand extended towards the flag salute. As Hitler rose to power and people did not want to be misidentified as Hitler sympathizers, the salute was replaced with the common hand-over heart motion by many schools across America during the 1930’s. Some schools took to a military style salute – hand to forehead. Notably, many schools changed their pledge ritual before Congress made it official in 1942.
In 1954, President Eisenhower spearheaded an effort to add the words, “under God,” to the pledge of allegiance and it has not been changed since then.
This is a short history of how the Pledge of Allegiance came into existence I schoolrooms across America and the few small changes that have been made over the years. It doesn’t surprise me that America’s pledge is laced with nationalism, indoctrination and capitalism.
I wish that schools would put students through the pace of questioning and developing their own belief systems instead of teaching unquestioned, propagandistic nationalism.
It must take an enormous amount of courage for Colin Kaeprnick and Traci Ellis to take bold career-altering moves that challenge a nationalistic ritual that we have been indoctrinated into since early childhood. They both remain American heroes in my book and, we need to remain focused on the “why” that inspired them – racial injustice is still prevalent in America. It is immoral to stand, or stand by and do nothing.