Pledging to a dream — with pride

Pledging to a dream — with pride

‘I came to recognize that the reality of daily life in this country hadn’t yet matched the dream of the nation’s founders — or the words we were being asked to recite each morning’

LONDONDERRY — It's been almost 50 years since I was a grade-schooler and first introduced to the Pledge of Allegiance.

As a little boy I had no idea what that pledge meant, or that I was being indoctrinated to unquestionably accept the United States of America as a land that assures liberty and justice for all, and as a nation serving a single Christian God.

Like most of my schoolmates I did what I was told. I blindly accepted the truthfulness of that pledge, and recited it upon command.

But time marches on, and little boys grow up.

I entered middle school in the late 1960s and soon found myself rallying in Washington, D.C. against the Vietnam War. That's where I first saw riot police violently attacking peaceful protesters, and where I first understood that liberty was limited, and justice discretionary.

Back at home, I was invited to join a friend when he went swimming at his private club, but when my mom found out, she was furious because it was a “whites-only” club that I wasn't allowed to visit.

She quickly taught me segregation was not one of our family values, and that accepting or participating in segregation in any form would not be tolerated.

I learned that liberty and justice mattered in my home, and I thought they should matter in my country, too. But when I looked at the world around me that didn't always seem to be the case.

* * *

The Pledge of Allegiance remained a staple that began every school morning through middle school, but once I was settled into high school I could no longer conscientiously pledge my allegiance with language that I considered a lie.

For a while, I remained seated with a few of the other rebels, while the rest of the boys and girls stood without questioning what they were saying.

Initially, that approach seemed reasonable, but it also offended many of my classmates (and teachers). It also led to a few unnecessary confrontations because they wrongly believed I hated the country that they loved.

There had to be a better way, and a Social Studies teacher helped us find it.

He prompted a multi-day discussion about liberty and justice in the United States and about what troubled us rebels. But also sought out what we loved about the U.S.A.

In time, I came to recognize that the reality of daily life in this country hadn't yet matched the dream of the nation's founders - or the words we were being asked to recite each morning.

And I realized that it was my generation's responsibility to fulfill that dream and make the words true.

* * *

So I stood again and recited the pledge with my classmates.

But first, I made a few almost imperceptible changes.

I dropped the words “under God” because I didn't see it in our Constitution. The presence of the phrase appeared to establish religion above non-religion, it had been added in 1954 - less than two decades earlier - as a political element, and it was unnecessarily divisive.

More importantly, I changed “with liberty and justice” to “seeking liberty and justice.” Thus, the new line became “One nation [pause], indivisible, seeking liberty and justice for all.”

My personal changes were small but revolutionary, and they commanded a personal commitment to what could be, rather than blind acceptance of a false reality.

Those subtle changes allowed me to once again be part of the morning ritual. The pledge bound us all in a social fabric that would be necessary to bring the dream of liberty and justice for all closer to a new reality.

* * *

Forty years have passed since I graduated from high school. Yet the United States of America remains a long way from the unfulfilled promise of liberty and justice for all.

Women make less money than men for the same jobs. Racial divides permeate many facets of life and limit individual rights.

Our nation imprisons a larger percentage of its population than almost any other country on Earth. (Only the tiny Republic of Seychelles has us beat.)

An exorbitant wealth-divide provides some Americans with greater freedoms, and with access to education, medical care, and legal justice that is denied those who are less fortunate.

Religious persecution is still common. Our newly elected president has incited racial hatred for his own electoral benefit, and he and many of his appointees have shown themselves to be grossly sexist, xenophobic, and authoritarian.

There can be no doubt that our country has made gains through my lifetime, but that progress is frighteningly tenuous, and there is still much work to be done.

The United States of America can still become a better nation that models the founders' dreams - but only if we are guided by a shared commitment to genuine liberty and justice for all.

And only if we resist being conned into believing the American mission has been realized - or that we have already achieved that illusive “liberty and justice.”

* * *

I am no longer in school and am rarely called upon to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but every once in a while I'll be at a public gathering that begins with everybody standing and honoring the flag.

When that happens, I rise, too, and I recite the personal words I adopted in high school so long ago.

I'm not shy about it, and I don't lower my voice.

I pledge to a dream - and do so with pride.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates