By Jack Burgess
My first conflict with the Pledge of Allegiance came in 1952, before “under God” was added. As ninth graders in Flint, Mich., where protest had been immortalized just across town by a sit-down strike at the General Motors plant in 1936, my friend Carl and I wondered why, when we’d already pledged our allegiance many times, we were asked to do so again every morning in home room, reducing the pledge to “mere platitude.” After all, marriage vows, which seemed a lot more life changing, were only taken once. What would happen if we just didn’t stand up?
Even though this was before the religious phrase was added in 1954, it was still a serious civil liberties matter. We knew that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on this issue, and we assumed that meant we didn’t have to pledge if we didn’t want to.
Our teacher at blue-collar Lowell Junior High School was an Army veteran. He was a nice guy that we liked, but he responded to our Pledge protests by sending us to the office. There we sat for several hours. Nothing much was said to us, but we got the impression consultations were going on that involved the principal, the superintendent and their lawyers.
About lunch time, the principal came out and said, “You boys go back to class now.” That was it. Nothing else happened, and we didn’t challenge the Pledge again.
At Flint Central High School, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the congressional resolution inserting “under God” in the Pledge, some of us questioned the decision. And in that very diverse school with mostly Christians, quite a few Jewish kids and some Muslims and American Indians (and no doubt a number of quiet unreligious folks), our English teacher tried to explain the change, with different comma placements than we see today, showing that the Pledge was just acknowledging America was “one nation,” yes, but one nation, “under God indivisible.” Meaning, we were told, that America couldn’t be divided politically or by war, but only by God. I think it seemed a stretch, but some kids liked the change, and the rest of us just sort of ignored it.
That left the rest of our lives to figure out what to do with “under God.” In 1954 I was a northern Baptist. In a year or so, I changed to Catholicism, as most of my friends growing up were Catholic. In fact, our working-class neighborhood was made up of folks from Appalachia, the Deep South, Poland, Mexico, Hungary, Germany, French Canada and Italy. Not surprisingly, we even had minor physical skirmishes, including rock throwing, between Protestants and Catholics. But later, as a freshman at Ohio State, living in Columbus, I became a non-church-going agnostic. As such, I could say the Pledge and did, with “under God” included, but that somehow made the Pledge itself – coerced and over-repeated – even less meaningful.
Not that I wasn’t patriotic. I grew up during and after World War II, supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later Harry Truman and felt very patriotic about our country, especially as we developed the United Nations and seemed to stand for freedom and tolerance in the world. I volunteered for the peacetime draft, and my brother had become a career soldier.
But while teaching history and English at Indianola Junior High in Columbus, the Pledge came back with a twist. I had more or less ignored it, as it didn’t come over the public address system in the morning, and there was plenty to do without it.
One day, though, Rick, a student in my homeroom, whose father supported George Wallace, asked why we didn’t say the Pledge every morning, like the other classes.
“Do you want to say the pledge?” I asked, buying time. He said he did, so I asked if other students agreed. Some did. But some didn’t. So we discussed it.
Ultimately, we voted on it, and students decided we would say the Pledge every other day, and those who didn’t want to stand didn’t have to. I took turns standing and reciting, or not. Rick went on to become a public defender. One of the other students paid me the ultimate compliment, a few years later, when he said, “Mr. Burgess, you taught us to think.”
Decades later, after a career in labor relations I returned to teaching in southern Ohio, in 1989, and on my first day, at an all-school assembly, I saw a history teacher physically wrench a student to his feet for the Pledge. I winced and looked away.
Now, in retirement, but as a part of groups such as our local Democratic Party, the Pledge and its religious affirmation are still with us. When I was asked, as a veteran, by our local party to lead the Pledge at a banquet, I was honored, but I said these words, as a preface:
“Before we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I feel compelled to say a couple of words, as a veteran, a father and a teacher: There’s been some controversy lately about singing the National Anthem, and by extension, saying the Pledge of Allegiance. When we say the Pledge as Democrats and as Americans, we’re not saying we support everything our government has ever done. We’re pledging allegiance to the America envisioned in ‘all men and women are created equal,’ and our belief – to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – that ‘the arc of history bends toward justice.’ Please join with me, if you wish, in saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.”
Jack Burgess is a retired teacher of history and English, former executive director of the Columbus Education Association and a labor relations practitioner. His columns on education, government and politics appear in the Chillicothe Gazette and elsewhere. He is the author of a book of poems titled It’s Always Gettysburg.