Between the Lines: Act like an American

David Lias

David Lias

By David Lias

The drama has been at a fever pitch recently, and I’m not talking about the University of South Dakota’s staging of  “Les Misérables” in Vermillion this week.

The theatrics has occurred a few miles north of here, in the Sioux Falls School District, and the script of this public staging of people’s passions has centered on the Pledge of Allegiance.

Here’s how this soap-operatic saga began.

According to KELO-TV, the issue started when Marcus Hicks, a senior at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, wondered why the students did not recite the Pledge Of Allegiance in high school. Hicks posted a comment about it on Facebook. His grandmother saw the comment, and went to a local veterans’ group with her concern. The veterans asked the board earlier this month to require reciting the pledge at the high school level.

Sioux Falls stopped requiring high school students to recite the pledge in the 1970s. The Sioux Falls school board’s initial vote on this issue earlier this month expanded mandatory saying of the Pledge of Allegiance up to the middle school level, but they reaffirmed the current policy at the high school level. Board members explained that high school teachers were free to lead their classes in the pledge, but that they didn’t want to add another requirement for high school classrooms.

KELO, however, incorrectly reported that the school board voted to end mandatory reciting of the pledge at high schools.  Fox News picked up on the story, and, well, you can imagine the tempest that ensued.

KSFY-TV, (with a news department that has accurately reported on this issue from the start) was told by Sioux Falls school board member Kent Alberty that board members had received hate mail and death threats, mostly from outside the area. Alberty says that one such threat called for all of the school board members to be lined up and shot.

Inaccurate reporting aside, and despite the fact that the Sioux Falls board had actually expanded the reciting of the pledge to include middle school students, there were enough people in the district with their red, white and blue boxers in a bunch to keep pressing the issue.

Earlier this week, the board relented. It has agreed to allow time for high school students in the Sioux Falls district to recite the pledge each day.

It’s a decision that evidently had made some parents and other citizens happy, particularly veterans who lectured board members Monday night.

“Shame on you for thinking you were going to take a vote on a topic like this the day after Veterans Day and not draw some attention. America isn’t as asleep at the wheel as some people think we are,” U.S. Navy veteran Dave Saunders told the board during a bit of chest thumping that went on at the Monday meeting.

I must admit that I don’t know which schools in Vermillion recite the pledge. I have a feeling that elementary students here do. I’ve done stories about people from the community, usually veterans, who visit the school and teach youngsters about the flag, proper etiquette, and how to run it up the flagpole every morning and fold it when they bring it back inside at the end of the day.

I’m a bit disappointed in the Sioux Falls school board’s decision. There should be some conditions attached.

Students should actually learn something in the process. They should be taught about the pledge itself. They should learn how it originated as, for all practical purposes, a sales gimmick.

The pledge was written in 1892 by a Christian Socialist, Francis Bellamy, as part of an advertising campaign for The Youth’s Companion, one of the country’s best known and highly regarded magazines. Taking advantage of deep anxiety among Anglo-Saxon Protestants about an increase in immigration during the final decades of the 19th Century, The Youth’s Companion hatched a scheme to turn nationalism into profit.

Through its premium department (essentially a mail order service that sold goods at discounted prices to lure new subscribers), the magazine began selling American flags and promoting the idea of putting one in every school. Seeing the opportunity to link the magazine and its flag drive to a high profile celebration of Columbus Day in October of 1892, one of the magazine’s marketers, James Upham, asked Bellamy to craft a pledge of allegiance that would accompany the ceremonial raising of the flag.

Bellamy wasn’t exactly a nice guy. Some describe him as a bigot and a xenophobe. Such labels appear to be fairly accurate, considering that besides the pledge, he also made these frightening statements in an editorial for the Illustrated American:

“A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world…Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. There are races more or less akin to our own whom we may admit freely and get nothing but advantage by the infusion of their wholesome blood. But there are other races, which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard, which we should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”

Hence, while the pledge of allegiance is widely regarded as a celebration of our patriotism and the “liberty and justice” upon which our nation was founded, its genesis can be traced to far more sinister fears about the racial, ethnic, and religious contamination that many Americans believed immigrants would bring with them.

Students should also learn when and why the words “under God” were added to the pledge. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Americans grew increasingly concerned about the threat of communism, there was a movement to add the phrase “under God” to the pledge. This movement, which coincided with a variety of attempts to inject religion into the public sphere in order to differentiate America from the godless communists, was ultimately successful. In 1954, Congress officially recognized the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance – over 60 years after it was originally written and almost 200 years after our founding fathers labored to establish a nation that kept the church and state separate.

Students should be taught about the great melting pot in which they live, and how America is becoming more and more diverse. That means the chances of them encountering people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds than their own are growing rapidly. There is a likelihood that a classmate, even a close friend, may abstain from reciting the pledge because of religious or other beliefs. Thus, providing time for the pledge also offers the opportunity to teach young people that citizens who choose not to recite it are not any less American.

Patriotism is an important part of being a citizen, and the pledge is part of that. But it certainly isn’t the most important criteria. Nor is it a requirement.

It’s the day-to-day stuff – actions that usually don’t generate news – that ultimately defines us as Americans. That’s the message our young people should and hopefully do receive early on, with no decrees from the government required.

Want to truly enjoy American liberty and justice? It’s simple. Act like an American. Watch out for your fellow women and men. You will encounter people who are hungry or have suffered loss or are hurting. Help feed and comfort them. Volunteer in your community. Pay your taxes. Deliver meals on wheels. Think about attending the community’s Veterans Day and Memorial Day services. Vote.

And, if you wish, say the Pledge of Allegiance. Understand, however, that reciting those words likely will have the least impact of everything else you have the potential to do for your country.

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