NPR : the Pledge of Allegiance

I caught part of NPR’s Fresh Air tonight driving to the meeting, the show was Richard J. Ellis and the Pledge of Allegiance. Intersting was the featured bit on the Jehovah’s Witnesses fight to not be required to say the Pledge of Allgiance.

In 1940 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8 to 1 that states could require the flag salute in schools. Consider the historical perspective, Nazi Germany was rolling over Europe and America was divided over how much involvement in the war was necessary. Nationalism and Patriotism were two big issues and the Pledge of Allgiance was ruled to help “to evoke that unifying element without which there can ultimately be no liberties, civil or religious.”

This decision unleashed nationwide public violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mob violence occurred in 44 states, with individuals being castrated, tarred and feathered and uprooted from their homes. The Supreme Court revisited this issue in 1943 and issued a rare reversal of their earlier decision.

Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” Jackson further wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Rather interesting was the part at about 23:30 into the interview, Richard J. Ellis on Francis Bellamy’s (the original author of our Pledge of Allegiance) intentions:

“He thought of the pledge as something that touched kids feelings, that it was not about thinking, it was about attaching the heart to the nation, so its a pre-rational attachment. Later on, when they were called upon to explain what their country was about, they would then go back to those words, they would be a part of their memory, it would do their thinking for them, it would be the way they understood who they were when they were older.”

I also find this a compelling example of how the Supreme Court of the United States can change its opinion on important First Amendment matters so quickly in the face of public opinion and public action.


Summary of the First Amendment cases that outline the free speech and press rights of students in public schools

From School to Supreme Court

Minersville had role in high court’s Pledge ruling