“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That’s the original pledge, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. (Under God was added in 1954.) Francis Bellamy was a Christian Socialist ousted from his Baptist ministry for insisting Jesus was a socialist. He believed the United States should be a worker’s paradise, where everyone had equal incomes. When it came to immigration and universal suffrage, though, his tune wavered. “Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another,” he said, “every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. …there are other races, which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard.” Go figure. But, hell, Bellamy was only mirroring what many folks thought about race at that time.
My paternal grandmother, a southern woman whom we called Mamaw, met good and bad news and off-hand remarks a bit coquettishly by dabbing her lips with a lace-fringed hanky pulled from under her sleeve. She’d then say, “Well, I do declare.” And that was pretty much all she’d say. She would occasionally opine on other things—her garden, the weather. And she’d mention black folk using the ugly word as easily as she talked about her peonies and red sallies. No one ever scolded Mamaw when she used that word. It wasn’t ugly at the time for a lot of folks. Indeed, the lexicon then reflected the personal and institutional biases of over ten American generations.
Slavery was dubbed “The Peculiar Institution” by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. He owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Indeed, eight of the first twelve presidents owned slaves. Patric Henry owned slaves. Christopher Gadsen, who designed the “Don’t Tread on Me flag,” was a slaveholder. Nearly 50% of the 55 delegates to the Continental Congress owned slaves. Slavery was a peculiarly American institution.
History is a magnificent leveler, demanding we see both the good and the bad of it. If you ignore one or the other, you’re intellectually dishonest; your gaslight shines brightly. The American history I was taught as a child was almost exclusively good. When I got to college, I discovered, among other things, George Washinton did not have wooden teeth. I also realized Mamaw’s use of the ugly word was deeply embedded in our national psyche.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution are the “Reconstruction Amendments.” They abolished slavery, established rights and equal protection for all, and prohibited discrimination in voting. Good for us! Children should be taught that.
Reconstruction after the Civil War saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws not only in the south but the north. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supremes said a Louisiana statute requiring separate but equal accommodation in passenger rail cars was okey-dokey. The opinion said the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to political and civil rights (like voting and jury service), not “social rights” like sitting in the railroad car of your choice. It was absurd to believe, Justice Hanry Brown said, “…the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.”
It took the Supremes fifty-eight years in Brown v. Board of Education to decide Jim Crow separate but equal institutionalized discrimination does indeed stamp the “colored race” with a badge of inferiority.
America’s military was institutionally segregated until 1948.
The Federal Housing Administration, created under FDR’s New Deal, advised in its manual that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” Thus, redlining became an institutionalized practice throughout the country. Indeed, in Chandler v. Ziegler (1930), the court held that restrictions against ownership or occupancy of land by negroes in certain districts did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. That case occurred in Jefferson County, Colorado.
Under the guise of election integrity, institutionalized racial discrimination, particularly in states with large minority communities, is having a revitalized heyday in American states to this very day. And, children should be taught the insidiousness of that.
Critical Race Theory? My professors at the University of Colorado—surely a cesspool of liberalism—didn’t teach CRT. Maybe they’d never heard of it. I first heard about it from Trumplicans, though their hair on fire bastardized version is intellectually dishonest. CRT is a dry and esoteric set of ideas debated in obscure academic journals. It simply attempts to explain the effect of institutionalized racial bias extant in our history.
We live in a great country, a once robust but now fragile democracy beholding to the principles of a republic. For as youthful as we are, we have accomplished a great deal. As we recite the pledge, we ought to remember our history. The good and the bad of it.