The ugly history of the Pledge of Allegiance — and why it matters

Roundup
tags: patriotism, pledge of allegiance, Bigotry, Nativism



Christopher Petrella is a lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College. He is completing his first book on the history of white supremacy in 20th-century New England.

Last month, school officials at Windfern High in Houston expelled 17-year-old senior India Landry for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in protest of “police brutality” and “Donald Trump being president.”

Despite her expulsion, most legal scholars agree that refusing to stand for the pledge is protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has held, in fact, that the government can neither require a student to participate in the pledge nor compel them “to engage in what amounts to implicit expression by standing at respectful attention while the flag salute is being administered.”

While defending pledge protests on free speech grounds is useful and necessary, it often draws attention away from the pledge’s political origins in nativism and white nationalism — roots that help us better understand the broader struggle for racial justice and full citizenship that drives these protests.

The origins of the pledge trace to the late 19th century, the product of an expansionist American project. In 1891, the family magazine Youth’s Companion asked 35-year-old Francis Bellamy, a former pastor of Boston’s Bethany Baptist Church, to fashion a patriotic program for schools around the country to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “arrival in America” by “raising the U.S. Flag over every public school from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

In just 23 lean words, Bellamy attempted to capture the “underlying spirit” of the American Republic. In so doing he wrote his way into the history books: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.” 

While the language contained in the pledge is not overtly nativist or xenophobic, the spirt that animated its creation was steeped in this sort of bigotry. ...




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