Historian Gerald Horne says the resolute insistence upon the Pledge of Allegiance plays into a racist narrative

Historians in the News
tags: pledge of allegiance

Dr. Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. 

PERIES: So, let's first talk about the flag, and this allegiance to the flag that we're required to pledge in every public school. What does it mean, where does it come from?

HORNE: Well, it's very interesting. The Pledge of Allegiance actually comes into play in the late 19th century. It was devised in no small measure because the United States had only recently fought the bitter Civil War, where upwards of 700,000 people were slaughtered on battlefields and in their houses. And it was thought that this artificially-constructed former slaveholders' republic needed some kind of glue to help to bring disparate elements together. And voila, you have the Pledge of Allegiance, which is actually not formally adopted until about 1942, when the United States once again was challenged by war, this time by World War II, and the battle against Berlin and Japan.

And once again, the issue of national unity was at play, not least because a substantial percentage of the citizenry, particularly those of African descent, were subjected to routine atrocities, and it was felt that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about shedding their blood and making the ultimate sacrifice for this so-called Republic. And so therefore you had the installation of the Pledge of Allegiance, particularly in schools, because it was thought that you had to get U.S. nationals at an early age in order to inculcate in them some sort of identification with the United States of America.

PERIES: And in terms of African-American history that you refer to here, where is there signs of resistance to this?

HORNE: Well, you should look at the third stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner, which is sung routinely, as you know, at sporting events, at every major, perhaps even minor, event at this country. The third stanza, the lyrics, devised by Francis Scott Key of Maryland--who, by the way, was a slaveowner, and by the way, in 1835 helped to incite a pogrom against people of African descent, particularly slaves, in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area--in the third stanza, he denounces the black population of the United States.

And one of the reasons he denounces them is because the Star-Spangled Banner comes out of the War of 1812, when there was this conflict between Britain, the former colonial power, and the United States of America, which had seceded from the British Empire in 1776. Voila, the July 4 holiday. And the African population, by several orders of magnitude, not only fought against the secession in 1776, but they aligned with London. And when the redcoats invaded, particularly Washington, D.C.-Maryland area in August 1814, and they set Washington, D.C. afire, set the White House afire, sent President James Madison and his garrulous spouse Dolley fleeing into the streets, once [ahead of] [incompr.].

And the Star-Spangled Banner speaks specifically and particularly to that, reprimanding, reproving, and denouncing black people for not standing alongside the star-spangled banner, but instead aligning, as the black population tended to do, with the real and imagined enemies of the United States of America. ...

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