I feel a strong solidarity with the athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem. I’ve never played professional football or any kind of football, really. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
I first encountered the pledge back in elementary school. My classmates and I were supposed to rattle it off when presented with the American flag. I asked what allegiance meant. I was told just to memorize it, not understand it.
When the civil rights movement began cluing me in on an America where liberty and justice extended to far from all, I was paying attention. I was appalled and confused by Jim Crow. What was up with separate water fountains? Why did a person’s color disqualify him or her from voting? Why were white parents so upset by the prospect of their children going to school with black kids that they’d scream venomous words at a first-grader? How could anyone sic huge, fanged dogs on boys and girls and throw them in jail?
Why were governors saying stuff like, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Why did the Ku Klux Klan get to burn crosses and terrorize with impunity? Why was the federal government so slow to intervene?
As I transitioned to high school, I became very aware of America’s war of aggression in a little country called Vietnam. Boys were being forced to kill people, including babies, under horrific conditions, some coming back in flag draped coffins. (I was never a fan of the saying, “dulce et decorum est” — “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”) Somehow the sons of rich and influential families were able to stay home while their lesser-born peers served as cannon fodder. While we were allegedly after the Viet Cong, we were murdering civilians and inflicting tremendous environmental damage by deliberate deforestation.
Dwight Eisenhower said every dollar spent on warships was unavailable to feed the hungry. Going through college and a first attempt at grad school and into marriage and child raising, I became increasingly aware of the “opportunity costs” of a bloated military budget. Hunger and homelessness were on the rise. Safety nets were shredding. Republican politicians wanted us to believe that charities, especially religious ones, could take over humanitarian aid, allowing government to wash its hands of that mess.
It was a Democratic president, however, who completed my disillusionment. In 1996, when William Jefferson Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, he only made the easiest revisions. He ignored the one important recommendation that could have humanized his action: in areas where there weren’t enough decent jobs, create government ones like those Franklin Roosevelt had used to mitigate the Great Depression. Poorly paying jobs with unpredictable hours left legions of families with children food insecure, inadequately housed and in constant peril.
By that time I couldn’t say the pledge without feeling like a hypocrite. I was elected to Veazie school committee in 2005. Meetings opened with the pledge. I didn’t make a big deal of not saying it. But if someone noticed and was asked why, I was honest. When I became vice chair, I thought ahead to when I’d run meetings in the chair’s absence. Skipping the pledge would probably upset people, and leading it would violate my personal ethics. So when I chaired, I delegated this duty to the principal.
Someday I hope to be able to say the pledge in good conscience. But that won’t happen until America truly has liberty and justice for all.
Jules Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist, proud mother of three and a student at the University of Maine in Orono.
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