Battles over patriotism, Pledge of Allegiance in schools span a century

When a California school principal called controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick an “anti-American thug” for his protests during the national anthem at NFL football games, passions were inflamed anew over whether patriotism should be taught in America’s schools.

As our new book “Patriotic Education in a Global Age” demonstrates, such debates are longstanding in American history.

Posting schoolhouse flags

Seventy-five years ago, at the height of America’s involvement in World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that guaranteed public school students’ right to refuse to stand in patriotic salute.

Barnette’s origins go back to the late 19th century, when patriotic societies such as the Grand Army of the Republic – a Civil War veterans’ organization – and the Woman’s Relief Corps – the organization’s women’s auxiliary – launched a campaign to place a flag in every public school classroom. “The reverence of schoolchildren for the flag should be like that of the Israelites for the Ark of the Covenant,” the organization’s commander-in-chief William Warner enthusiastically declared at a rally in 1889.

Three years later, in 1892, the schoolhouse flag movement received a huge boost when The Youth’s Companion – one of the nation’s first weekly magazines to target both adults and their children – hired minister-turned-advertiser Francis Bellamy to develop promotional strategies to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. Bellamy’s national Columbus Day program involved assembling millions of students at their local schools to recite a pledge in salute to the American flag. The magazine profited from flag sales leading up to the event. The United States didn’t have an official pledge of national loyalty, however. So Bellamy composed his own: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Over the course of the next 40 years, the pledge underwent three revisions.

The first occurred almost immediately following the Columbus Day celebration when Bellamy, unhappy with the rhythm of his original work, inserted the word “to” before “the Republic.” Between 1892 and the end of World War I, this was the 23-word pledge that many states wrote into law.

The second modification occurred in 1923 when the American Legion’s National Americanism Commission recommended that Congress officially adopt Bellamy’s pledge as the national Pledge of Allegiance. Fearing, however, that Bellamy’s opening phrase – “I pledge allegiance to my Flag” – permitted immigrants to pledge allegiance to any flag they desired, the commission revised the line to read, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

Over time, schools adopted the revision. Finally, in 1954, after the federal government included the pledge as part of the U.S. Flag Code during World War II, Congress reacted to the so-called godless communism many believed was infiltrating U.S. public institutions by adding the phrase “under God.”

Mainstreaming the pledge

Throughout the early 20th century, states across the nation passed laws that required student recitation as part of a morning flag salute so that by the time the United States plunged into World War I against Germany in 1917, pledging allegiance to the flag had become the standard beginning to the school day.

This explains why, in October 1935, 10-year-old Billy Gobitas and his 11-year-old sister Lillian were expelled from school after they refused to salute the flag. As Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed that venerating the flag violated God’s prohibition against bowing to graven images, the Gobitas family argued that the flag salute infringed the children’s First Amendment rights.