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Why I won't say the Pledge of Allegiance

by Lois June Wickstrom

(this is a talk prepared for the Independence Square Toastmasters group in Philadelphia)

You may have noticed that I donít salute the flag at the beginning of our meetings. And you may have wondered why. Let me assure you that I am loyal to the United States of America. And I do value this group. In fact, the reasons I donít say the pledge are the importance I place on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the trust I place in this organization. I am trying to live consciously, and I want my words to mean something.

 

I grew up in schools where teachers and students recited the Pledge of Allegiance first thing in the morning. I was an obedient student and followed along. I remember my surprise when I learned that Jehovahís Witnesses were refusing to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag because it violated their religion to pledge allegiance to anything but God. Iíd never thought about the words and what they meant. It was just a poem that we recited every day.

I decided to read this Pledge more carefully, and think about it. I found that I agree with the sentiments expressed in the Pledge. I have studied the Constitution and I value my freedoms that it guarantees. For me, there is nothing objectionable in the pledge itself. But I found myself objecting to the fact that Iíd been saying it for a decade and never once thought about what I was saying.

Yes, my teachers had put the words "pledge" and "allegiance" on our spelling and vocabulary lists. I could easily define the words and get them right on a spelling test. But I had not thought about the meaning of reciting the pledge every day.

Memorization is considered useful for learning phone numbers and multiplication tables and state capitals Ė not for understanding ideas or believing in ideals. Patriotism is not something that can be memorized.

I researched the origin of the Pledge itself.

I learned that when Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 he intended it for one-time use. He worked for The Youth Companion Magazine, which was promoting the sales of US Flags to school classrooms.

Bellamy wanted to include the word "equality" in the Pledge, but the civil war had only ended 27 years before he wrote it. Segregation was legal. Women could not vote. He knew the Pledge would not be accepted with the word "equality" in it. And while he could have made the Pledge say "I pledge allegiance to the Constitution," his company was selling flags, not copies of the Constitution.

As part of this flag selling campaign, Francis Bellamy lobbied President Benjamin Harrison to endorse the creation of Columbus Day in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbusí landing in the Bahamas. When President Harrison endorsed Columbus Day, The Youth Companion published Bellamyís patriotic poem. The Youth Companion sold 25,000 flags and 475,000 copies of the magazine with the Pledge in it. I admire this entrepreneurial achievement.

The Youth Companion never sold another flag. For the next five years, Columbus Day was celebrated without the Pledge. But 6 years later when the United States declared war on Spain, the New York State Legislature passed a law requiring school children to recite the Pledge.

By 1905, 19 states had legislated the recitation of the Pledge in schools. Today 25 states require daily recitation and another 9 require it at least once a month. Pennsylvania is not among them.

The Pledge took on the same protective aura as the Maginot line that protected 400 miles of the French - German border, before World War II. The Maginot line did not protect France from German attack in 1940. Likewise, the Pledge does not protect our students from terrorism, or insure their patriotism. It is not a vaccine.

Be honest, when you recited the pledge at the beginning of todayís meeting, did you think about the words? Will those words have any impact on your thoughts for the rest of today?

Laws that make reciting the Pledge mandatory have been declared unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson said in 1943, "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions."

Mark Twain said that reciting the Pledge was treason. He said it was equivalent to saying, "My Country, Right or Wrong" which he considered to be the worst form of treason. It is betraying our responsibility to speak out when we think our country is making a mistake.

As a result of my research, I believe that making the recitation of the Pledge into a ritual was a mistake.

The peer pressure to recite the pledge is intimidating. After my first visit to this group, I checked the Toastmastersí website and was relieved to discover that the pledge is not required.

The Pledge has become like an advertising jingle that we canít get out of our heads, but it has become so familiar that it no longer reminds us of the product it was designed to sell. Patriotism is not like soap or cereal. We wonít switch brands if we donít see constant reminders.

Our very organization is living proof that we value our citizenship

We, in Toastmasters, are engaged in one of the most patriotic of acts. We are learning to express our opinions on a wide variety of topics, so we can best enjoy and utilize the rights granted us as citizens of America. 

We donít need to recite a poem to remind us why we are here.

What was supposed to make us think, instead has become meaningless memorization. What was supposed to unite us, instead has divided us. What was supposed to promote freedom, instead has restricted us.

We are here to speak words that mean what they say. I ask that we vote to restore freedom and unity to our meetings. Let's stop making a ritual out of the pledge.