NASHVILLE, Tenn. — By placing the evolution of the American flag and the practice of burning it in protest in a historical context, John Seigenthaler produced a more intricate analysis of the controversy than one would read in a history textbook.
Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, today discussed “Patriotism: Salute the Flag or Burn It?” The talk was the first in a series of six lectures on First Amendment history and values. “Conversations with John Seigenthaler” continues for the next five Fridays at the center on the Vanderbilt University campus.
“My country has been good to me and to most white males of my generation. It’s easy for me to say that I would never burn or desecrate the flag,” Seigenthaler said before listing segments of the U.S. population that have had their rights suppressed, including slaves, Native Americans, women, Japanese-Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. “But had I been any of the above I cannot say … that I wouldn’t.”
Seigenthaler juxtaposed the history of Old Glory rallying Americans during times of trouble with “a dark side to our national nature” that could cause citizens to burn a flag in protest. “Much of our history is based on our right to disagree,” he said.
Beginning with the origins of the American flag, Seigenthaler said he, like most Americans, was taught that a young widow during the Revolutionary War designed the flag at George Washington’s request. Seigenthaler then told the story of Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who billed Congress in 1780 for designing the American flag. Though he was never paid, Congress never denied that he was the flag’s creator.
The story of Betsy Ross was first reported in 1870 by her grandson, who claimed that his grandmother had shared the story with him as she was dying. The country accepted his tale because, Seigenthaler said, people needed unity and something to rally around. The Civil War had just ended and discord still rippled through the states, echoing the tragedy the country had just witnessed.
In 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared, having been written by a socialist and Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy. Soon every schoolchild across the nation was reciting his words and saluting the flag daily.
The Supreme Court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis in 1940 that public school officials were justified in ordering two Jehovah’s Witness children to salute and say the pledge — despite their faith’s prohibition against paying homage to what they viewed as a “graven image” as described in Exodus.
After the ruling, Seigenthaler recounted, Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country found themselves the target of 1,500 violent acts because they would not salute the flag. It was the eve of the United State’s entrance in World War II and the Court’s opinion “coincided with a gathering patriotic firestorm,” Seigenthaler said.
Horrified by the violence, in 1943 the Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
Initially, proposed laws against flag desecration were aimed at entrepreneurs using its image to promote products in the late 19th century. However, in recent years a number of bills have been introduced in Congress to change the Constitution to allow flag protection. The most recent, proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, lacked one vote to pass in June 2006. Seigenthaler said that, according to the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment survey, 63% of the public opposes a constitutional ban on flag-burning.
As images of protest demonstrations flashed on a screen behind him, Seigenthaler discussed different kinds of anger that flag-burning can reflect. One instance involved U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision in 2000 to return Cuban refugee child Elián González to his father in Cuba. The armed raid in which Elián was taken from his American relatives for return to Cuba sparked protests by Cuban-Americans in Miami and New York, including reports of flag desecration.
Saying he was personally opposed to burning American flags, Seigenthaler showed a 1976 video clip of Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday rescuing a flag from being torched on field during a game at Dodger Stadium. Seigenthaler called it “the greatest play in baseball.”
But he closed by saying he understood that “in the face of outrageous government actions,” people should retain the right to burn a flag in protest.
Seigenthaler’s next lecture, on Oct. 20, is titled, “Freedom of the Press: ‘A Set of Infamous Scribblers!’”
Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.