"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all." - original version
I have been giving a lot of thought to the Pledge of Allegiance of late, which generations of school children have recited every morning, saying the words together, but rarely discussing what they mean to them, either as individuals or collectively as Americans.
We stand up when we are commanded to by authority figures, recite the Pledge, and go about our day.
Like our nation, the Pledge has changed over the years, one of the few things all Americans can agree on is a clear sign of evolution.
I grew up in a time when saying the Pledge was accompanied by the reading of the Daily Prayer in school, something most of my friends dreaded, since our teachers tended to call on a different student each day to lead the class in prayer.
I’ll write about the prayers one day, and my unsuccessful effort to get out of it, but not today. I’ll just say this, though, as Captain Kirk said of his solution to the Kobayashi Maru test in The Wrath of Khan, “It had the virtue of having never been tried.”
There is a sort of silly Star Trek episode from the 1960s about a parallel Earth in which the inhabitants recited sacred words, but got all the pronunciation wrong. James T. Kirk, the finest Canadian Starfleet captain ever to come down the line, realized they were reciting the Declaration of Independence.
In the only part of the episode that was truly worth watching (and I hate to say that about my beloved Star Trek) he shows not only how to pronounce the words, but what they mean, and how they apply to everyone, not just those you like.
That five minutes of commercial television is as good a civics lesson as one is likely to find, I think.
When you are a kid, people - authority figures, once again - tell you about the Pledge and what it means. Sometimes they’ll play back the old Red Skelton explanation of what the Pledge is about. I actually remember watching that one on TV.
But no one ever asks kids themselves what the Pledge means to them, or how it applies to their lives. Do they believe in it? Would it have different meanings for young people living in poverty than it does for those who don’t have to worry about whether their parents can afford to pay the electric bill?
Would it apply differently to those who had relatives who had - though innocent of a crime - been urged by an overworked public defender to plead guilty so as to avoid a jury trial?
What if they were the children of illegal immigrants, whose own status was uncertain?
Or their mother had been forced to leave her job because of sexual harassment?
Honestly, the Pledge of Allegiance does not mean all things to all people, nor should it.
The author of the original Pledge was Francis Bellamy, who wrote it in 1892.
The Christian socialist/Baptist minister saw his Pledge published in the September, 1892 issue of a popular young person’s magazine. He briefly considered including the words “equality and fraternity,” but cold reality shut the door on that. Though he may have seen the best in people, Bellamy also realized that the state education superintendents he was dealing with gave short shrift to the notion of female or black equality.
He could only dream about a future day.
Later, during the Red Scare of the 1950s, the words “under God” were added.
The current version 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."
Today, thousands of people will recite the Pledge, along with their children, before getting on with holiday festivities. But what does it mean to each person who recites it?
I’d like to think that the Pledge could be taken apart every year in school and discussed by the students themselves, with guidance from the teacher - who wouldn’t tell them what to think.
Deconstruct the Pledge of Allegiance just as one would a poem or song, word by word, line by line. It’s just possible that one’s life experiences may change how one sees the Pledge in any given year.
It shouldn’t be recited just because someone tells you to do so; hell, far from reciting it and not thinking about it - there may be parts that you hold more sacred than others.
Some may dismiss the Pledge because we are an imperfect nation, but for me, that is why the Pledge is so important.
The words “liberty and justice for all” have always resonated with me, even when I was a younger man. I saw the Pledge as a promise to help bring about “liberty and justice for all,” even in my small way, as all Americans are expected to.
As cynical as I have become about government over the years, and those who would corrupt our country, those five words have been like a beacon for me.
But for every person, I suspect, something else may be true.
I don’t think that Francis Bellamy believed that the Pledge reflected the America of his day, but as a Pledge to make it better.
And maybe, just maybe, we might get more Americans to realize it is their responsibility to stay informed, and be a little (it doesn’t take much effort, folks) more involved with the future of this country.
And if we can get young people talking and thinking about something as basic as the Pledge of Allegiance?
On the Air with Jennifer Braly
Jennifer Braly, a transgendered UA Fort Smith student who was barred from speaking to classes, will be the guest on my show this week.
Braly, who has inadvertently received international attention for not being allowed to speak, will discuss the issue, and how she was actually able to speak in a non-classroom setting.
Braly, who is not allowed a roommate because of her transgendered status, recently sought the help of the United States Justice Department so that she might be allowed to use the women’s restroom.
Braly will discuss the lectures she gave, as well as other details of her life.
Show days and times:
Friday - 6am/6pm
Fayetteville Public Access Television is shown on Channel 218 of the Cox Channel line-up in Fayetteville, and on Channel 99 of AT&T’s U-Verse, which reaches viewers from Bella Vista to Fort Smith.
Fayetteville Public Access TV can also be seen on line at:
Quote of the Day
One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothin' can beat teamwork. - Edward Abbey (1927 - 1989)