The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ugly history of the Pledge of Allegiance — and why it matters

Requiring displays of patriotism have often been tied to nativism and bigotry.

Mandatory recitations of the pledge are part of a compulsory, and exclusive, patriotism. (Library of Congress)

Last month, school officials at Windfern High in Houston expelled 17-year-old senior India Landry for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in protest of “police brutality” and “Donald Trump being president.”

Despite her expulsion, most legal scholars agree that refusing to stand for the pledge is protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has held, in fact, that the government can neither require a student to participate in the pledge nor compel them “to engage in what amounts to implicit expression by standing at respectful attention while the flag salute is being administered.”

While defending pledge protests on free speech grounds is useful and necessary, it often draws attention away from the pledge’s political origins in nativism and white nationalism — roots that help us better understand the broader struggle for racial justice and full citizenship that drives these protests.

The origins of the pledge trace to the late 19th century, the product of an expansionist American project. In 1891, the family magazine Youth’s Companion asked 35-year-old Francis Bellamy, a former pastor of Boston’s Bethany Baptist Church, to fashion a patriotic program for schools around the country to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “arrival in America” by “raising the U.S. Flag over every public school from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

In just 23 lean words, Bellamy attempted to capture the “underlying spirit” of the American Republic. In so doing he wrote his way into the history books: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”

While the language contained in the pledge is not overtly nativist or xenophobic, the spirt that animated its creation was steeped in this sort of bigotry.

Through the pledge, Bellamy sought to define “true Americanism” against the rising tide of southern and eastern European immigrants “pouring over our country” in the early 20th century from “races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard.” Although Bellamy conceded that “the United States has always been a nation of immigrants,” he argued that “incoming waves of immigrants … are coming from countries whose institutions are entirely at variance with our own.”

Decrying the character and “quality” of these recent newcomers, Bellamy lamented that “we cannot be the dumping ground of Europe and bloom like a flower garden.” To him, “every dull-witted and fanatical immigrant” granted citizenship threatened the American republic.

Far from a political outlier, Bellamy tapped into the ubiquitous turn-of-the-century nativism that made enemies of the 2.5 million Slavs, Jews and Italians who immigrated to the United States throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Nativists had approved of the mostly white immigrants who came from northern and western Europe in the 1860s and 1870s, seeing them as skilled and industrious just like native-born Americans. But they recoiled at the darker immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were less likely to speak English and more likely to be Catholic or Jewish. Such immigrants were considered not fully white and thus virtually unassimilable.

Bellamy’s words and the context that birthed them reflected a country negotiating the contours of its own national identity, the relationship between race and citizenship and the changing nature of immigration. Bellamy, like countless others, feared that the “poor stock” of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe would result in a loss of white native-born Protestant American culture, the very culture that, in his eyes, had built the American republic.

White Protestant Americans sought both to stanch the flow of immigrants and force those who did enter to assimilate and adopt their idealized American culture. Congress enabled the goal of exclusion by passing racially exclusionary immigration laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1891 and the Geary Act of 1892.

Bellamy’s pledge advanced the goal of assimilation — written to, in his words, “mobilize the masses to support primary American doctrines” by warding off internal enemies hostile to “true Americanism.” The creation and proliferation of the pledge, in part, served as a way to consolidate white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American values that the white mainstream perceived as under siege.

Although the pledge did not become a mandatory part of the school day until the 1930s, its establishment in the 1890s exemplifies the ways in which culture works in moments of moral panic to secure — both literally and figuratively — the nation’s territorial and ideological borders.

In a similar way, the 1954 addition of the words “under God” to the pledge constituted a salvo against another outside menace — godless Communism.

The nativism of the 1890s that birthed the Pledge of Allegiance is still with us today. At a time when the president of the United States demands restrictive immigration laws in the wake of terrorist attacks and promises to build a “great wall” between the United States and Mexico to curb the flow of Mexican migrants whom he has categorically branded criminals and rapists, we would do well to learn from our history of race-based moral panics and compulsory patriotism.

Given that history, we should not be surprised that our current national concern over borders and citizenship has prompted fierce debates about race and patriotism.

In response to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police violence against black and brown people, the president quipped, “When you go down and take a knee — you’re sitting essentially — for our national anthem, you’re disrespecting our flag and you’re disrespecting our country.” In one of his 37 tweets last month on the subject, Trump added that “the only way out for [the NFL] is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!” Compulsory patriotism of this variety — and the sort that forces students to stand for the pledge — should remind us that questions of race and belonging are always linked to notions of nationality and nationalism.

Rather than solely reflecting imagined American values, Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance was, at its core, designed as an instrument of white nationalism deployed to combat the dangerous outsiders of his day. The roots of the pledge shed light on the continued necessity of protests today that powerfully link the history of race and violence with nonnegotiable citizenship and full belonging.