History of our pledge enlightens students

During the last state legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. Although Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed this legislation, it is likely to pass again in the fall, according to legislators planning to reintroduce the bill.

Proponents of the bill claim this will ensure that students are taught American history. “For a long time, we’ve taken everything for granted in the United States of America,” State Sen. Mady Reiter, R-Shoreview, said of the proposed law. “Our children were not learning all that they should have about our history, about what’s gone before us and how important freedom is.”

As historians ourselves, we agree with these noble sentiments. While forcing children and teachers to say the pledge might be a flawed method of this education, we will take the proponents of this legislation at their word. Therefore, we propose the use of the pledge as a teaching tool for American youth.

What can Minnesota children learn from the pledge? To begin with, Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist, composed the pledge in 1892. He believed an unequal distribution of wealth and a concentration of power in the hands of a corporate few distorted the true promise of the American democratic experiment. Bellamy thought the business community had destroyed the true concept of liberty, and that capitalism must slowly be replaced by a more egalitarian economic system reflected in the life of Christ.

Studying the dissent of Christian Socialists like Bellamy might lead Minnesota students to study other nonconformists in history and how they changed American society. They did so not through a blind acceptance of American life, but through an open discussion of the pros and cons of the American system. Many Minnesotans dissented from prevailing thought in order to improve America.

After learning about Bellamy, students could discuss the lives and ideas of Oliver Kelley, founder of the National Grange; Ignatious Donnely, who helped write the Populist Party platform; Meridel Le Sueur, who reported on the plight of Americans during the Depression; and Clyde Bellacourt and Dennis Banks, co-founders of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis, whose first action involved fighting what we would call today “racial profiling.”

Next, students should understand the evolution of the pledge itself. Originally, students would recite the pledge by coming to attention, snapping their heels together and stretching out their hand with their palm up, keeping it raised while reciting the pledge. Although this practice was discontinued during World War II because of its striking similarity to the Nazi salute, Bellamy actually articulated this veneration of racial purity. “There are races, more or less akin to our own, whom we may admit freely,” he wrote. “But there are other races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard.”

Simultaneously, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion worked to change “my flag” to “the flag” in order to prevent immigrants from pledging allegiance to their native country. In 1954, after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, Congress added the words “under God” to the pledge. This was a response to the Cold War, as the United States wanted to emphasize its Christianity in direct contrast to the Soviet Union’s perceived atheism.

Discussions of these changes to the pledge will allow students to recognize how the United States has historically imposed conformity and repressed dissent. By understanding how the pledge has been influenced by racism and xenophobia, students can learn to speak out against oppression and bigotry. They can begin to understand how enforcing conformity can be a very damaging act, no matter how well intentioned.

A recent example of this occurred in 2000, when a high school student from Pennsylvania was suspended for three weeks for refusing to recite the pledge. The school circumvented the student’s right to free speech by claiming the suspension was due to his unwillingness to write an essay justifying his refusal. This student, however, chose to make his voice heard and refused to participate in the indoctrination that became a substitute allowing students to decide for themselves for what and for whom they will pledge allegiance.

Like Reiter, we believe students are not learning all they should about our nation’s history. While we are opposed to coercion, by learning the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, students can learn about the long tradition of Americans who have fought for true democracy, collective values and an egalitarian society.

The true history of the Pledge of Allegiance is a place to begin, as is an unvarnished look at America’s past. We have teaching materials available for those interested in answering this challenge.


Jay Wendelberger, Sarah Crabtree, Burt Johnson, Matt Carhart, Andy Carhart, Melissa Williams, Mark Soderstrom, Joel Helfrich and Mike Lansing are members of the Radical History Workshop. They welcome comments and inquiries at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]