In March 1916 a reader with a “boyish hand” wrote The New York Age seeking that black newspaper’s position on Hubert Evans, an 11-year-old black boy in Des Moines, Iowa, who got dragged before a juvenile court judge for refusing to salute the American flag at school. “I won’t salute the flag at school for I do not think it is right,” Hubert had said. “It doesn’t have God in it. In the second place, I haven’t any country. It all belongs to the white man. If it wasn’t for God, I would not be here. The white man doesn’t count us.”
James Weldon Johnson – the poet, novelist, editorial writer, educator, ambassador and all-around renaissance man – wrote the newspaper’s response. He said the judge was right to order the boy back to school to honor the flag. Johnson disagreed with the boy that God isn’t the flag. Furthermore, he argues, if it’s not black people’s country after “three hundred years of labor and loyalty,” then whose country is it? He concedes that “Of course we have been wronged, we are still being wronged, many of our rights are still denied us.” But because slavery had been eradicated in a United States that had practiced it for two centuries it seemed obvious to Johnson that “every other wrong against the Negro will be righted.”
It’s been 101 years since Johnson’s pro-flag argument predicted that things would improve for black people. And it would be dishonest to say that things haven’t improved. Even so, reports abound of black people demonstrating their opposition to racism and the government by sitting out flag celebrations.
This month in Farmington Hills, Mich., a black boy at East Middle School kept his seat as his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and a teacher was suspended from her job for dragging him out of his seat to force his compliance. Stone Chaney, who is the same age Hubert was, told a Detroit television station, “God said don’t worship anything other than me, don’t worship any idols, and pledging to a flag would kind of be like worshiping it.” Stone added that it doesn’t matter what his reason is. “It’s my right.”
Anybody want to argue otherwise?
A black woman and black man at the Detroit Lions’ home opener against the Arizona Cardinals kept their seat during the pre-game performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and another Lions fan posted a photograph of them on social media and captioned it “Ignorant n—–s!” The Lions made David Doptis turn in his season tickets for that offense. Stacey Graham, the woman he insulted, told a Detroit television station that she doesn’t stand for the anthem because of language in its third verse: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Francis Scott Key apparently saw no contradiction in following those lines with “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
It’s been decades now, but I clearly remember an evening program at my nearly all black high school when a black woman near me in the audience added three words to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance: “So they say.” Has there ever been an era in American history when black people weren’t debating how or if to honor the flag?
In “The Children,” an account of the student-led civil rights movement of the 1960s, David Halberstam tells the story of Gloria Johnson who – long before she joined the sit-in movement in Nashville – refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at her high school in Boston. Her complaint was that the pledge was nationalistic and, therefore, problematic. In his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made,” Jackie Robinson writes of looking at the flag and listening to the national anthem before his first World Series appearance for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
“Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
In his 1916 editorial about Hubert, Johnson says that if black Americans don’t claim the United States, then they don’t deserve a country. In “Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era,” author Chad Williams says that leading black thinkers such as Johnson “hoped to reconcile the paradoxical nature of American nationalism with a racially inclusive vision of democracy.” Johnson seemed to see black people’s expressions of patriotism as part of a bargain that would include the government doing right by black people.
There are, indeed, many black Americans who continue standing up for the flag. At the same time, there are many who sit frustrated that America hasn’t kept its end of the bargain.