Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Patriotism, Pledging Allegiance, and Public Schools: Lessons from Washington County in the 1940s

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Patriotism, Pledging Allegiance, and Public Schools: Lessons from Washington County in the 1940s

Article excerpt

THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE, first composed in the nineteenth century, has once again become a topic of considerable editorial comment and political posturing in the twenty-first century, as seventeen states have enacted new pledge laws or amended existing statutes.1 Nonetheless, there is little evidence that many citizens or elected officials are aware of the history and consequences of attempts by patriotic organizations, local school districts, and state governments to define and require expressions of appropriate sentiments about the nation's flag. This essay examines incidents at two schools in Washington County, Arkansas, during the early 1940s, when public school children refused to pledge allegiance to the flag because of their religious beliefs and suffered the consequences. While these were certainly not the only instances of controversy over the flag salute in Arkansas schools in that period, the Washington County episodes serve as an effective case study. They suggest something of the motives, actions, and experiences of those involved in similar incidents across Arkansas and the nation.

The school flag movement began in 1888, when James Upham, head of the premium department of Youth s Companion magazine, launched a four-year campaign to encourage the display of United States flags in school classrooms, in order both to sell flags and to promote "American patriotism." The following year, Col. George Thatcher Balch introduced an American flag salute in his New York City kindergarten class, requiring students to stretch their right arm forward while pledging, "We give our heads and our hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one Flag." Balch spread his ideas for inculcating Americanism by publishing a book, Methods of Teaching Patriotism in Public Schools, in 1890. Youth's Companion had already sold over 25,000 flags to public schools when it first published the Pledge of Allegiance in its issue of September 8, 1892. It wished to promote nationalism in the schools during the celebration of that October's 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Written by Francis Bellamy, a thirty-year-old assistant to the editor of the magazine, the Pledge originally read, "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." Leaflets containing the Pledge were distributed to public schools, and an estimated twelve million students recited the Pledge on Columbus Day, 1892.3

The drums of war, as always, found public officials and professional patriots ready to seek national unity through the force of law. In 1898, as the United States went to war with Spain, the New York legislature passed the first statute mandating that each public school day open with a salute to the flag and other patriotic exercises. What had begun as a youth magazine's publicity campaign to promote patriotism and sell flags had become a ritual required by law. During World War I, children of Mennonites were expelled from schools for refusing on religious grounds to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and, during the 1920s, public school students of various religious backgrounds suffered similar fates from Delaware to Denver.4

During the "Red Scare" following World War I, the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, and other patriotic organizations urged public schools to stress "100 percent Americanism" in the curriculum. Arkansas was among the states that acted. In 1923, the General Assembly adopted laws requiring the display of the American flag at all educational institutions in the state and mandating the teaching of patriotism, both of which remain on the statute books today.5 That summer, the American Legion led the call for the first National Flag Conference to meet in Washington, D.C., and changed the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, replacing "my flag" with "the flag of the United States," so that immigrants and their children could not covertly pledge allegiance to the flags of their countries of origin. …

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