The Pledge of Allegiance: Liberty and Justice for All?

by Ayesha Chari


What you can do:

Jabari Talbot’s story is just one of many examples of the criminalization of Black and other POC youth in schools. To create an environment where students are safe to express their opinions and be themselves, look up local efforts to divest from police/School Resource Officers in your home school district. 

Jabari faced violence for addressing the systemic racism the institutions in this country were founded on. A similar incident happened recently on Cornell’s Campus, with Student Assembly members facing abuse addressing the systemic violence of Black and Brown students by police. To protect the ability of BIPOC students to raise awareness of racism safely, email President Martha Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi (president@cornell.edu, ryan.lombardi@cornell.edu) and ask them to hold the Cornell Republicans, who spread the names and faces of SA members with the intent to subject them to harassment, accountable.


I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The Pledge of Allegiance is written into the fabric of our education system. As of right now, 45 states have written legislation requiring pledge recitations on a school-wide level [1]. Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont, and Wyoming leave the option open to districts, and California requires a “patriotic exercise” daily, a requirement often filled by the pledge [2]. The Pledge of Allegiance introduces young students to the ideals and values of America. One Wyoming county, when introducing new legislation that included pledge recitation, explained that their decision was out of a desire for “civics education”, and was a response to “pushes at a state level for more patriotism in school” [3]. Any attempts to remove the Pledge from the mandated routine of school has been almost universally revoked.

There is no doubt that the Pledge of Allegiance holds value for many Americans; yet, the history of the phrase is as complicated and controversial as the history of the country itself. 

Francis Bellamy and the Pledge’s Awkward Beginnings

The original Pledge of Allegiance was coined by former Baptist Minister and fervent socialist Francis Bellamy [4]. Bellamy was a writer for The Youth’s Companion, a religious-leaning children’s magazine. The Youth’s Companion had been interested in promoting patriotism since 1888, when it launched its “Flag over the Schoolhouse” campaign, which encouraged readers to sell certificates to neighbors to raise money to purchase a flag for their school [5]. Bellamy’s involvement began when he was recruited to create a flag salute for President Benjamin Harrison’s 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus Day, a federal holiday meant to honor Christopher Columbus, a leader of the colonization of the people of the Americas:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Bellamy referred to the Pledge as “a straight-out vow of allegiance”. To its author, the pledge represented “the distinctive principles of true Americanism”, an answer to a shifting America of industrial capitalism and the rise of the “alien immigrant of inferior race” [4]. His words caught on: by 1900, 19 states and territories had adopted the ritual of reciting the Pledge every morning before class [5]. In 1923, Francis Bellamy reflected on its success: “this little formula has been pounding away on the impressionable minds of children for a generation”. 

Court Rulings on Mandatory Recitation

The first major case against the Pledge of Allegiance was brought forth in 1940 in the Supreme Court Case 1940 Minersville School District v. Gobitis [6]. In 1935, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses was expelled from a Pennsylvania public school for refusing to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. In a 8-1 court majority, The Court ruled that the pledge’s recitation was a matter of “national security” and therefore was “inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values” [7]. However, that decision was then reversed three years later with Minersville School District v. Gobitis, another case with Jehovah’s Witnesses. In a majority opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson, the Court decided that First Amendment rights trumped any campaign for national unity [8]. Since then, it has been against the law to force a student to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance during any classroom recitation. 

One Nation, Under Whom?

The current-day Pledge of Allegiance has one notable phrase that Francis Bellamy’s original did not. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill officially adding “under God” between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” [6]. Eisenhower’s decision to add “under God” was in part to distinguish the United States from the looming threat of communism, saying in a statement that the phrase’s addition reaffirms “the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future” in a world “deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life” [9].

Attempts to secularize the Pledge have not been met with success. In 2002, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the phrase violated the First Amendment after an atheist father objected to the Pledge being recited in his daughter’s school, but the ruling was overturned in 2004 because of the father’s insufficient custody over his daughter, leaving this question of constitutionality up for debate [6] [10].

In 2005, a  U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton sided with an atheist family, ruling that the three districts in Sacramento under his jurisdiction were in violation of the First Amendment by reciting the pledge with the “Under God” phase included [11]. Yet, similar cases in 2015 in Massachusetts (Jane Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District) and New Jersey (American Humanist Association v. Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District) both sided in favor of the defendant [6] [12]. These rulings make it more difficult for this issue to ascend to judgement of the Supreme Court.

Supporters of the “Under God” phrase suggest that it evokes a political ideology untied to any particular theism. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit organization that served on as counsel to both 2015 court cases, argues that the phrase “encapsulates America’s unique political philosophy that grounds human dignity and fundamental rights in an authority higher than the State”, similar to the “inalienable rights” clause of the Declaration of Independence [13]. Therefore, “under God” is a political philosophy, one with founding documents as its predecessors. 

Who does the pledge help, and who does it hurt?

Advocates for the Pledge of Allegiance often mention how daily recitation cannot infringe on any freedoms, since students and parents have the option to opt out of recitation. However, even when participation may seem voluntary, a school may create an environment that makes resistance difficult.

In 2019, a civil rights complaint was filed after an 11-year old Black student was arrested in Polk County, Florida after an incident where he had refused to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance [14]. Jabari Talbot, a sixth-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, told the substitute teacher conducting the pledge that he would not stand because “the flag is racist and the National anthem is offensive to Black people” [15]. The substitute teacher, Ana Alvarez, then asked the student “Why, if it was so bad here, he did not go to another place to (live)” [14]. The situation then escalated until Jabari was arrested. In response to outrage, the Lakeland Police Department stated the student was “arrested for disrupting the classroom” and “NOT for refusing to participate in the Pledge” [16]. A spokesperson for the district reported that Alvarez was not aware that the Pledge was voluntary. While the charges against Jabari Talbot were dropped a month later, the civil rights complaint, now pending before the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, notes that other students, who were not Black, had also chosen not to stand, but that only Jabari was singled out by Alvarez [17].

Jabari’s story is an example of the false freedom of “voluntary” school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. Even when Jabari had the right to abstain from the Pledge, his decision to do so resulted in an emotionally traumatic experience that led to him transferring schools [17]. The attitude of not just the substitute teacher, but the school system and law enforcement, illustrates how the Pledge can be just another way to punish Black students for speaking up about the systemic racism they have experienced. 

In an 1897 editorial, Francis Bellamy suggested it was the mission of the public school system to “to assimilate these children [of the foreign born] to an American standard of life and ideas” [5]. Bellamy proclaimed the American racial standard should be “as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.” Bellamy’s pledge fit right into the American school system: the same system that, for decades, had been forcing Native American children into boarding schools to “kill the Indian, save the man” [18]. Centuries later, students of color still face backlash for criticizing the United States. By not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, First Amendment right or not, a young student resisted assimilation and was punished accordingly. 

When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the National Anthem in 2016, like Jackie Robinson and other athletes before him, he was met with racist vitriol from those who opposed his protests [19]. By refusing to participate in a pledge of patriotism, Kaepernick permanently took a stance as a person of color who refused to assimilate. The season in which he decided to protest would be the last of his career. Four years later, Kaepernick remains unsigned by the NFL, revealing Bellamy’s vision for patriotism as a litmus test for minorities is still alive and well [20].


Works Cited:

[1] https://media2.newsobserver.com/content/media/2016/3/22/Pledge%20of%20Allegiance%203.22.16.docx

[2] https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Many-schools-skip-Pledge-of-Allegiance-4379740.php

[3] https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/schools/patriotic-exercises-now-daily-in-schools/article_967e84b1-a996-50d2-9f51-ad3010bc4850.html

[4] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pledge-allegiance-pr-gimmick-patriotic-vow-1809563 

[5] https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/article/a-sentimental-education/

[6] https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-latest-controversy-about-under-god-in-the-pledge-of-allegiance

[7] https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/319us624

[8] https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/319us624

[9] https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/statement-the-president-upon-signing-bill-include-the-words-under-god-the-pledge-the-flag

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/27/us/judges-ban-pledge-of-allegiance-from-schools-citing-under-god.html

[11] http://www.chicagodefender.com/page/religion.cfm?ArticleID=2273

[12] https://www.nj.com/monmouth/2014/04/family_sues_monmouth_county_school_over_under_god_in_pledge.html

[13] https://www.becketlaw.org/case/american-humanist-association-v-matawan-aberdeen-regional-school-district/

[14] https://www.theledger.com/news/20190219/civil-rights-complaint-being-filed-for-11-year-old-lakeland-student-arrested-after-confrontation-for-not-standing-for-pledge-of-allegiance 

[15] https://www.theledger.com/news/20190215/lakeland-student-11-arrested-for-confrontation-after-refusal-to-stand-for-pledge-of-allegiance

[16] https://twitter.com/LakelandPD/status/1097315262771142662

[17] https://www.theledger.com/news/20190306/polk-student-at-center-of-pledge-flap-sees-case-closed

[18] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/stories/articles/2020/4/13/early-years-american-indian-boarding-schools

[19] https://mlb.nbcsports.com/2017/09/24/heres-what-jackie-robinson-had-to-say-about-the-national-anthem/ 

[20] https://www.nfl.com/news/after-two-teams-showed-interest-month-ago-no-action-on-colin-kaepernick-front

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