In 1942, America was in peril.
It was immersed in a war for survival and faced powerful enemies to the east and west. It had already suffered a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor and faced a long, bloody road to victory. For many, it was a time to demonstrate their patriotism and support for their country.
The West Virginia Board of Education chose to do so by enacting a rule that required children to salute the flag. Students who failed to salute would be subject to disciplinary action, which included the possibility of being expelled or sent to reform school. The parents could be prosecuted for contributing to juvenile delinquency.
At the time, Germany was sending thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses to concentration camps for refusing to salute the Nazi flag. Jehovah’s Witnesses were forbidden by their religion to salute flags, which they consider a form of idolatry.
Walter Barnette was a Jehovah’s Witness in West Virginia who instructed his two daughters not to salute the flag or recite the pledge of allegiance. The girls were duly expelled, and Barnette took the matter to court, asserting that the salute violated the principles of freedom of religion and of speech.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
Three years earlier, the Court had ruled that a Pennsylvania school board had the right to require Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag. These enforced demonstrations, one justice argued, were a means of creating national unity.
On June 14, 1943, the justices reversed this earlier decision. Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
The Post editors applauded the decision. They recognized that the freedom to express one’s patriotism was one of the things America was fighting to defend.
As the Constitution Center recently noted about the ruling, “Patriotism and free speech still collide now and then. Such debates remind us that individual expression can be criticized and yet still protected by the First Amendment.”
-From a July 10, 1943, editorial in The Saturday Evening Post:
Score for Freedom No. 2
The Supreme Court happened to select Flag Day to hand down the opinion that it had been wrong in an earlier decision in a Jehovah’s Witnesses flag-salute case. The court, in reversing itself, declared that state statutes calling for salutes to the flag by school children were in violation of the Bill of Rights unless they took account of the religious convictions of minorities.
In Justice Jackson’s words: “If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matter of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word of mouth their faith therein.”
The principles of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be pretty annoying to the majority of citizens. They insist on propagating their beliefs at the most inconvenient times and places, and they make no concessions to the sensibilities of the majority. To our way of thinking, this makes all the more impressive the action of the court, taken in time of war, when hysteria can so easily be directed toward eccentric minorities, to protect the elementary rights of unpopular individuals.
The majesty of the flag will not suffer because it has been permitted to remain the symbol of a willing loyalty. While the honest convictions of American citizens are protected by judicial authority from the zeal of well-meaning but often impatient officialdom, the flag, which symbolizes our hard-won privileges, waves more proudly than before over the land of the free. Love of country is not in danger. It springs, to quote Justice Douglas, “from willing hearts and free minds.”
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
Did you know that June 14 is designated as Flag Day because on that date the resolution describing the flag was adopted? Here are ten questions about the history, composition, and proper display of Old Glory. Answers are at the bottom. (Quiz originally published June 15, 1946.)
- By what body was the flag resolution adopted?
- The Continental Congress
- The Constitutional Convention
- Joint session of both Houses of Congress
- In what year was it adopted?
- Who designed the present form of the American flag?
- Timothy Pickering
- Betsy Ross
- Samuel Reid
- The blue part of the flag, without the stars, is called the field. Give two names for it after the stars have been added.
- The 48 stars are arranged in:
- Six horizontal rows of eight stars
- Eight horizontal rows of six stars
- Is there a Federal law against having gold fringe on the flag?
- Who wrote the poem that gives significance to the title of this quiz?
- If the flag is displayed over a street running north and south, the field should be at
- East side
- West side
- Who wrote the pledge of allegiance to the flag?
- Dolly Madison
- Robert Baden-Powell
- Francis Bellamy
- The following are among the days on which the flag should be displayed.* Name the days.
- February 12
- February 22
- April 6
- May 30
- September 27
- November 11
Answers: 1. a. 2. b. 3. c. 4. union, canton. 5. a. 6. No. 7. Francis Scott Key (Star-Spangled Banner). 8. a. 9. c. 10. Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, Army Day, Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day), Constitution Day, Columbus Day, Navy Day, Armistice Day*
*Since this quiz was published in 1946, the number of days that the flag should be displayed has changed. The current list of days, according to the U.S. Code, includes New Year’s Day (January 1); Inauguration Day (January 20); Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (third Monday in January); Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12); Washington’s Birthday (third Monday in February); National Vietnam War Veterans Day (March 29); Easter Sunday (variable); Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May); Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May); Memorial Day (half-staff until noon —last Monday in May); Flag Day (June 14); Father’s Day (third Sunday in June); Independence Day (July 4); National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (July 27); Labor Day (first Monday in September); Constitution Day (September 17); Columbus Day (second Monday in October); Navy Day (October 27); Veterans Day (November 11); Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November); Christmas Day (December 25); and such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States; the birthdays of States (date of admission); and on State holidays.
It was proclaimed by President Wilson in 1916. It became official with an Act of Congress in 1949. It is “observed” today at all federal facilities. But Flag Day is not a federal holiday, which is unfortunate.
June 14 is the date that the Continental Congress approved the new flag, which makes this the birthday of America’s most powerful symbol. The American flag is unlike those of other nations, just as our nation is unlike others. The flag stands for the invented nation of the United States, founded on a principal, not geography. It symbolizes our revolution, our ideals, our past actions, and our potential.
The reason we were taught to pledge allegiance to the flag as children was so we would stand by it as adults. We are held accountable for what our country does. Like it or not, the world has high expectations for Americans—expectations they don’t hold for, say, Finlanders or Luxembourgers.
If you’re among the 20 percent of living Americans who were born in the mid 1950s, you probably learned to pledge allegiance to a 48-star flag. The addition of Alaska in 1959 required the country to produce a new, 49-star flag. Then, in 1960, the star for Hawaii made these newer flags obsolete, as reported by a Post reporter:
“One more month and the proud new 50-star flags you see being sewn together by the busy Betsy Rosses … will become officially ensigns of the United States. It has been a hard two years on manufacturers such as the Dettra Flag Company of Oaks, Pennsylvania. After 47 years of an unchanging 48-star design, two newcomer states forced the rearrangement of the flag’s union, or starred blue field, twice within a year. On the double change-over, Dettra lost about $150,000 in canceled orders and unsalable inventory. The short-lived 49-star flag started the biggest boom the flag business had ever known. This boom collapsed utterly when Hawaii’s admission to the Union was voted by Congress in March, 1959. However, when the president announced on August 21 which 50-star design was to be used, the boom revived, and by the Fourth of July Dettra will have made 2,000,000 bright new banners—twice as many as it ever made before in a single year, and about 40 percent of the year’s total for the country.”
The flag made frequent appearances on the Post’s covers over the years, particularly during World War II. Yet, in the patriotic euphoria following the war’s end, Post editors grew concerned about—of all things—too many flags.
“The season for parades is on, everything from the carnival show to the Ancient and Ponderable Order of Chowder Marchers. Nobody is complaining about that because parades, particularly the bands, are a great treat to most people. Nevertheless, as the wife of a distinguished combat officer in Europe points out to us, most parades carry too many flags. Not only does this compel patriotic men and women to stand at attention more often than necessary, but it leads to disrespect for the flag, just as endless reproduction of a Worth gown would depreciate the value of the original. At an Army post review or parade, only one flag is carried, and the honor of being a part of the color guard is highly cherished. It does seem as if the annual parade of the Knights of the Full Gallon Convention Week could get along with what the Army considers adequate.
“Our major’s wife reports watching a parade in Boston in which ‘literally hundreds of flags’ were carried, with the result that men had to stand like ramrods most of the time or struggle to dispose of packages while removing their hats. The unfortunate part of it all is that the national emblem, which should have a special meaning now, receives no honor from this promiscuous use.
“No, we aren’t out to pass a law about it—only to urge on well-meaning chairmen of committees the point that the American flag is not a decoration or an excuse for a mass of color. It should be displayed with regard to its dignity and the appropriateness of its use.”
We would be remiss if we didn’t bring attention to another important flag hung in American households: the service flag. The Post ran a short article about it in 1942.
“The story begins in Cleveland, Ohio, at the home of Capt. Robert. L. Quiesser. Captain Quiesser had served on the Mexican border with the Fifth Ohio Infantry, from 1914 to 1916, been injured in an accident, and placed on the retired list of officers of the Ohio National Guard. ‘Shortly after April 6, 1917,’ he relates, ‘when war with Germany was declared, I wondered if I could not evolve some design by which it might be known that my two sons were away in their country’s service; one which, to their mother, would be a visible sign of the sacrifices her sons were making. And I wanted it to be a comfort, not only to my wife, but to all mothers whose sons or daughters were in the service.’ Captain Queisser went right to work. He designed a service flag which, by June, had been formally adopted by the city of Cleveland and was spreading rapidly over the country. In subsequent months, several resolutions were introduced in Congress to proclaim it an official flag of the Government. Although none were adopted, Brig. Gen. Nathan William MacChesney declared in May, 1918, that the service flag had taken such firm root in popular sentiment and has been of such beneficial influence that it is officially recognized, and everyone who is entitled to fly it is encouraged and urged to do so.
“When the present war began, numerous households hauled out their old World War I service flag; new ones began appearing on the market. This time Congress did act, passing a bill in October, 1942, which authorized the secretary of war to approve an official design and license manufacturers to make them.
“The present Government approved design is similar to Captain Queisser’s—a white rectangle with a red border, and a blue star for each person in the service. A smaller gold star is placed over the blue if the service man—or woman—is killed. No one had a record of how many service flags are flying today, but the total obviously runs in the millions.”
You will occasionally see a service flag still. The Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives help promote the use of these flags to show support to the spouses and children serving, and dying, in foreign lands. They also provide support to state-side families dealing with separation and loss. For more information, visit bluestarmothers.org and goldstarwives.org.