On Nov. 29, 2022, Marissa Barnwell, an honor student at River Bluff High School in Lexington, S.C., was walking to class when the Pledge of Allegiance came on over the loudspeaker. It was Marissa’s 15th birthday and, as she told me recently, “I started off that day very happy, just living life.” Though other students passed in the hallway without incident, school camera footage shows a confrontation between Marissa and a teacher. According to Marissa, the teacher yelled at her to stop walking, grabbed her by the arm and pushed her against a hallway wall. She was then escorted to the principal’s office.
Once there, Marissa says she told the principal she’d been assaulted by a teacher for exercising her First Amendment right not to participate in the pledge. As Marissa recalls, he responded, “Don’t you love this country?”
There are many ways to express patriotism. In the grand, short scheme of American history, the Pledge of Allegiance, in its current form, is relatively new. The authorship of the pledge has recently been disputed, but it is commonly attributed to Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist who claimed to have written it in 1892. In the 1920s, it was amended to refer specifically to the flag “of the United States of America,” in case any recent immigrants got the wrong idea about which country they were heeding. It wasn’t until 1954, at the height of the Red Scare, that President Eisenhower succumbed to pressure from McCarthyites in Congress to insert the words “under God” into the pledge.
In 1935, a seventh-grade student, Lillian Gobitas, and her brother William, a fifth grader, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, refused to recite the pledge in school on religious grounds. They were harassed and ostracized; children threw rocks at Lillian, and she and William were expelled. The case eventually rose to the Supreme Court, which decided against them. That decision was overturned in 1943. “If there is any 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 matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the majority opinion.
I knew none of this history in the late 1970s, when I moved from one suburban New York town to another and wound up in a second-grade public school classroom where each day began with the pledge. Students rose from their desks, affixed their right hands to their hearts and repeated the words in unison.
Only I wouldn’t do it — and as a consequence, I was sent to the principal’s office. I remember explaining that I did not believe in God and therefore didn’t wish to participate. I remember my mother being called and that whatever she said must have appeased them. I was released back to class, presumably having lain to rest any concerns that the new kid was some kind of troublemaker.
Marissa Barnwell and I chose not to recite the pledge for different reasons and under very different circumstances. My confrontation took place during the relatively apathetic ’70s in liberal New York. I was 7 years old, white, painfully shy. Marissa is a Black 15-year-old attending a predominantly white school in red state South Carolina during a highly polarized time; she was singled out among numerous students walking during the pledge in the hallway that day. When her story broke, she was denounced on social media, often in incendiary and hateful terms; on Facebook, one comment urged her to “go back to her monkey cage in Africa if she doesn’t like to recite the pledge to the country that’s doing her and her retarded family a favor by letting them live among decent humans.”
This kind of repellent racism is the very reason Marissa first stopped reciting the pledge in third grade, inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Marissa told me: “Protesting the Pledge of Allegiance is basically saying that I’m aware of the way American society treats Black people, that we are not all treated equally, with liberty or with justice. I want to be sure to acknowledge that what’s being pledged isn’t the truth.” In 2019, an 11-year-old boy was arrested in Florida following a dispute over his refusal to stand for the pledge, which also served as a protest against racism.
People may have many reasons to exercise their First Amendment right not to recite the pledge. Those reasons can be personal and private; they should not need a public defense. No federal law requires citizens to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, stand when it is delivered or stop to acknowledge its recitation. State law, however, sometimes does. Texas, for example, requires students to pledge allegiance every day, not only to the United States but to the Lone Star State as well.
Many Americans may not be aware of just how unusual it is for students to recite a daily oath to their country or their country’s leader. The oddity probably stands out most to those who have immigrated here or who have lived outside this country for any significant period of time. In Britain, students don’t start their school day with “God Save the King.” In France, public schoolchildren don’t pay fealty to the tricolor before setting to the day’s lessons.
In some countries, students sing a national anthem before school events, but few require regular loyalty pledges from their students; among those that do are North Korea, Singapore and, until recently, Turkey. When I lived in Thailand in the ’90s, movie audiences had to stand before every film while the royal anthem played, accompanied by a short film about the king. As a noncitizen resident of the country and out of respect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, I also stood up. These days, in a sign of civic unrest, more Thais are staying seated in quiet protest of his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Some people believe that protest itself is a form of patriotism — that only those who are deeply invested in their country and who believe in its capacity to overcome wrongs would bother pointing out injustices. Should such dissent be viewed as any less patriotic than the indifference exhibited by those who absent-mindedly put a hand to their chest while repeating words to which they may not have given consideration?
Marissa Barnwell, a high-achieving and conscientious teenager, understood her constitutional rights and exercised them. (Her family is now suing the school district and others, accusing them of violating the First and Fourteenth amendments.) Isn’t that — more than reciting a loyalty oath, whether you believe in it or not — what citizenship is about? That’s how Marissa sees it. When she grows up, she told me, she wants to be a lawyer because, as she put it, “I want to make sure there is representation for fair treatment for all, and I want to be that person.”
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