YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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July 2015

By Paula Penebaker, President & CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin

Flags and Race

“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.”

That’s a powerful promise. Who wrote it?
What does it mean for every person who might recite it?

Most of the pledge’s 31 words were written by Francis Bellamy and published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. According to ushistory.org, Bellamy had hoped the pledge would be used by citizens in any county, though in 1923 the words, “of the United States of America” were added. In 1954, President Eisenhower petitioned Congress to add “under God” in response to the Communist threat of the times. Bellamy’s daughter opposed the 1954 change, but the times won out.

In my opinion, the most important words in the Pledge are “liberty and justice for all.”

Liberty is defined by Macmillan as “the freedom to think or behave in the way that you want and not be controlled by a government or by other people.” When an opportunity to say the pledge arises, we are all expected to comply, to put our right hand over our heart and join in. Not to do so is tantamount to treason.

Is the expectation of compliance fair to people who don’t experience liberty or justice?

This year, we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of a 14-year-old boy, Emmett Till. He was viciously murdered by adult men in 1955. He was black; they were white. I wonder how many times Emmett recited the Pledge—common behavior in schools everywhere at that time—before school was out that fateful summer. How many times did he pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States before he went to a part of the country that flew the stars and stripes with the Confederate flag: one, a symbol of an united country flying over another, the symbol of a divided nation in perfect paradox. The fact that Emmitt was murdered over some perceived act of disrespect proved he was neither free to think or behave as he wanted.

Last month, nine African Americans were massacred in a church in Charleston, SC by an angry young white man. Their deaths were quickly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, as if the flag had come alive to kill. It had flown atop the capitol building in Columbia from 1962-2000 when it was moved to the front lawn where it flew until earlier this month. Now that it has been retired, many are relieved. It’s as if removal of the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (the flag’s original name) solved the problem of racism and hate it represented and the victims can rest in peace.

I fear the Confederate flag was a shiny new thing, a distraction from earnestly addressing the hate that grew in Dylann Roof and resulted in his attack on the people at Emanuel AME Church.

Let’s not give in to the temptation to ignore racism’s ugliness by trying to hope it away. Rather, let’s work to ensure a country for which liberty and justice are enjoyed by all.

In closing, think about why we place so much stock in physical symbols that stand for a state of being that we can’t live up to? Is it just an ideal of a land where liberty and justice exist for all that we want? Don’t we want it to be a reality? Surely, we aren’t so naïve to believe that it’s true.

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