Like our nation, Francis Bellamy, the Christian socialist who wrote the first version of the pledge of allegiance to help sell American flags, was a mixed bag of unresolved conflicts. His patriotic fervor combined with his interpretation of Jesus to be a socialist led to an egalitarian view that resources should be nationalized for the common good but did not remove from his mind ugly notions that some of the world’s “races” were not deserving to be part of the U.S. He got one rhetorical thing unequivocally right: the organizing principle of this country should be “liberty and justice for all.” But he never got around to accepting that the “all” actually should be “all.”
By placing his aspired socialism in a nationalistic framework, he undercut not only Jesus’s message of inclusive neighborliness but also the necessary outward-looking internationalism that later democratic socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg came to view as foundational. This internationalism would be focused on building a decent people-centered global society, not on clearing the way for profit-centered neoliberal corporate hegemony à la TPP, TTIP, TISA, and the like.
He also contributed to our slowness to grasp that our world does not as a matter of science and morality revolve around boundaries. As free-thinking individuals, it may gradually become self-evident that inalienable rights means everyone, everywhere. Perhaps those of us who are bi-ethnic tend to discover this tension in the pledge quicker because we are walking melting pots.
On paper at least, I could have turned out like a certain demagogic Hispanic U.S. Senator son of a preacher man from Texas. I had every opportunity to go down that path. But my winding path led elsewhere.
I grew up in the Civil Rights/Vietnam era raised by a highly conservative Southern Baptist minister who was a pioneer of sorts. My sweet now elderly dad is a brown-skinned “Hispanic” American–his mother a Cuban American cigar roller born in the cigar making town of West Tampa, where her radical uncle had been mayor, and his father an immigrant who came over from the Canary Islands in the early days of the Depression to work at an uncle’s restaurant in Miami. Out of high school in the Eisenhower years, my dad got a job working for Eastern Airlines, and, under the influence of management mentors, became a Republican, the first in his family of staunch Democrats. A few years after he decided to become a Republican he decided to become a preacher.
I can still remember my grandma arguing with my dad in her Spanish accent, “The Democrats are for the working people,” as we ate great meals in her tiny Hialeah dining room beneath the picture of JFK with the words “ask not what your country can do for you” printed. Back in the glory days of militant labor activism in turn-of-the-century Hillsborough County, Florida, my cigar rolling ancestors were anti-capitalists, to the left of where FDR would wind up, but that was not something that I would learn until much later in life.
When I was a little boy, my dad became one of the first Hispanic Southern Baptist ministers. He wound up pastoring at a small rural church in Yazoo County, Mississippi, where I started school in a segregated public school in 1965. I was half-Hispanic because my dad had married his Georgia “peach” high school sweetheart (my dear mom who, by the way, lies recovering from serious injuries suffered just yesterday, from which she will recover due to that piece of socialism called Medicare). Even with my mom’s pale skin blended in me, I was the darkest skinned kid at Bentonia’s public school for “whites,” grades 1-12, and I felt a small amount of prejudice against me by some of the students. But it was nothing, of course, like the hateful legalized prejudice displayed against the African American students we passed on the way to our all-white school.
When we got to school, after the kind, nurturing but strict teacher inspected our fingernails, we would all say the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag, using the current 1954 version:
“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.”
All around us were the badges and incidents of slavery. Little that pledge said that flag stood for was consistent with the facts on the ground.
While I now realize the “under God” words were a Red Scare era appendage, the “God is love” I was taught about in Sunday School was not in evidence toward those who had in some cases skin no darker than mine who happened to be classified as “Negro,” or, using the word the mean boys on the school bus rained down as we passed their tar paper shacks, “N*s, N*s.” Many of these boys went to our church.
When my first grade teacher, who was as I said a genuinely sweet and caring person, read to us from the Bible, she never chastened us to be God-like toward African Americans. They were the unmentionables of first grade Bible reading time. (So much for the lie that taking religion out of the public schools created society’s problems.)
A deacon in our church was proudly being put up for the school board because he could be trusted to be a loyal vote for segregation. At the same time, the small businessmen in our church complained that the African Americans at the mill had organized a boycott and were no longer giving them their dollars.
“One Nation” and “indivisible” likewise floated over my head. Fear-mongering about Martin Luther King left me afraid that protesters would burn down our Jim Walter pre-fab parsonage on a rumored march from Jackson to Yazoo City that never materialized. What was one nation and indivisible about the society of Yazoo County at the time? Everything was divided, right down to the water fountains at the laundry mat, duly marked “Colored” and “White.” Confronted with those water fountains for the first time at the age of five, I had to ask my obviously “white” mother which one I was supposed to use, and she said “white” or otherwise I would never have known.
But I always liked those last words, “liberty and justice for all.” Along with “God is love” and other good things I learned in church, I think that those five words were the seeds of my eventually becoming a democratic socialist.
I learned to mouth the words of that pledge by rote, as a meaningless act seemingly mandated. It was only in college that I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses had gone to court to establish in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943) that school children could not be forced to pledge allegiance to or salute the U.S. flag. Perhaps when children walk into a U.S. public school on the first day, they should be taught about their rights to remain seated and NOT to pledge allegiance to or salute the U.S. flag. In any event, I duly learned to mumble the words until adulthood, when I began to sense that I was part of a mass hypocritical act by doing so.
These days, when I go to a school or public meeting where the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag is conducted, I rise, place my hand over my heart and say nothing until we get to those last five words. I pledge my allegiance to those five words.
Liberty and justice for all. The most perfect and succinct statement of my democratic socialism. The most perfect and succinct statement of why we should have this “more perfect union” to begin with. And it is quintessentially “American,” being linguistically embodied in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Except for that “to ourselves and our posterity” part. Our founding foreracists deliberately excluded persons of African descent and First Nations from the blessings of liberty and the other goals of the preamble. I do not worship their memory. And I do not pledge my allegiance to their flag or any other.
I am not a traitor to my nation by refusing to do so. I am carrying out my allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” by realizing that the “all” is not based on “race”/ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, past criminal convictions, national origin, or even national boundaries. Everyone, no matter where they live on this one beautiful Earth, is my brother and sister. Over time, I hope we the people unite more and more in deep democracy with liberty and justice for all.