“I pledge allegiance to the flag,” we say in our public schools every morning, “of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands.” We go on to affirm that our country is “One nation, under God, indivisible,” a country that deserves our allegiance because of its dedication to “liberty and justice for all.”
I’ve been thinking about the pledge this week for two different reasons. The first is about flags, and the Republics for which they stand. Thanks to Emma Zakes Green, I had the opportunity to read the Cornerstone speech delivered by the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens in March of 1861. In it, he said, “Our new Government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."
The state of South Carolina seems insistent about flying the flag of the Confederacy on state land, and equally insistent about denying the truth of that flag and its most basic historical meaning. I understand that the entirety of the United States was complicit in that most evil institution of slavery, but only the Confederacy enshrined it in their Constitution. I hope that a tidal wave of public opinion, from every corner of this nation and every ethnicity finally moves South Carolina to take down that flag.
The second reason I’ve been thinking about the pledge has to do with the disparity between its language and our reality. America’s mythic history is about a people yearning for freedom who created an exceptional country out of their highest aspirations. But the truth? This nation built an economic empire using human slaves to farm land we stole. It was never the intention of our founders to extend ‘liberty and justice’ to all, merely to Christian males of European descent, people like themselves. America was built on the backs of people it intended to exclude. Nearly 250 years later, we are still engaged in the struggle of inclusion for all people.
It’s nearly impossible to solve a problem while denying it. If we truly intend to make progress against the institutions that perpetuate inequality in this country - and most of our institutions perpetuate American inequality - we need to acknowledge the brokenness of the foundation upon which we were built.
What would America look like if we were truly dedicated to liberty and justice for all?
A country that requires municipalities to balance their budgets using speed traps, or the labor of prisoners, is not a ‘free’ country. A country whose penal code is influenced by the privatized prison industrial complex is not truly ‘free.’ The nation that has 4% of the world’s people but 25% of the planet’s prison population is not a ‘free country.’
States that forbid their environmental experts from saying the words “climate change” do not belong in a free country. States that require medical professionals to lie to women seeking to terminate pregnancies do not belong in free countries.
I would like to be able to say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, one nation, indivisable, striving mightily to achieve liberty and justice for all.”
“America! America!” wrote Katherine Lee Bates,
“God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”