Football player Colin Kaepernick has caused a national stir by exercising his First Amendment rights and refusing to stand during the national anthem before games. In 1969, when Charlie was in middle school, he participated in a similar high-profile protest. This essay, composed in 1987, will appear in his forthcoming book, The Enthusiasms of Charles Harrington Elster.
The Monday after Independence Day, the “Students’ Express” page of the San Diego Tribune ran a column called “Wisdom from the Young.” A class of third-graders at Central School in National City had been asked why they recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school. Most of the answers contained the word freedom.
“It means we are saluting our country every day for our freedom,” said Carl Pepito. “It means freedom and peace,” said Anona Malijan. “It means that we are going to be good Americans,” said Gretchen Miran.
What does it mean to be a good American? The breathless patriotism of these young people brought back a strong memory of a time when I was forming my own political consciousness.
In 1969, I was a seventh-grader in a public school in New York City. Great, disturbing things were happening then in the world, and American society seemed to be cracking at the seams, ready to collapse or change, we weren’t sure which.
The year before, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered, the Democratic convention in Chicago had turned into a riot, and the Great Society had ended as a man named Richard Nixon swept into the White House promising “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Meanwhile, we watched the Vietnam War on television, watched as 18- and 19-year-old boys died in the Asian jungle to protect “democracy” and “freedom.”
As seventh-graders, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do, but we were determined to do something. A group of us got together and hit upon a plan, which we fielded to the rest of our class during homeroom. In a few days the majority had agreed that the following morning we would refuse to stand up and recite the Pledge.
We had no idea we were about to set off a time bomb that would explode in the national press and become a precedent-setting case in court.
The first day about 80 percent of the class stayed seated. A few children staunchly went through the routine. Two or three rose automatically, then looked around at the rest of us and decided it was best to sit back down.
The teacher was horrified. She told us to stand up. We sat silently. She ordered individual children to get up. Each quietly refused.
By now the teacher’s mouth was hanging open in astonishment. When she ran out to get the assistant principal, we congratulated each other and quickly went over our tactics for the next round of confrontation.
To us, our assistant principal—the Bowtied Baboon, as we irreverently called him—represented everything we stood against in what in those days was called “the establishment.” When he entered the classroom, red-faced and bloated with fury, he pointed a fat finger at us and demanded to know why we wouldn’t stand up. We explained that we were protesting our government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and that as Americans we had the right not to pledge allegiance to something we did not believe in.
Then he did something we were utterly unprepared for. He pulled eight of us from the classroom and, threatening us with suspension, hauled us off to the principal. I was one of the eight.
The principal, Harold Baron, told us in no uncertain terms that we would have to stand up or we would be suspended. Parents were called. My father came and told me to do what I thought was right, but to consider the consequences. I cried. I didn’t want to be kicked out of school.
The administrators had won the first round. They did to us what all oppressive governments do to destroy opposition: divide and conquer. When you dispose of a movement’s leaders, you neutralize the movement.
The next day a humbled class (I among them) stood up for the Pledge, though most of us did not recite it. To everyone’s surprise, however, four of the original eight remained in their seats—four very brave, committed, and stubborn young women. Once again the Bowtied Baboon was summoned, and the girls were summarily suspended.
Now it was our turn to be shocked and outraged. With parental support we circulated petitions, demanded a hearing with the school board. Eventually, the Eight Against the Pledge met with the Board of Education of the City of New York. Along with other notables, famed anthropologist Margaret Mead was there, observing the political coming of age of this little group of dissident American youth.
After we presented our case, the board offered a compromise: We could either stand up and be silent during the Pledge or leave the room. To us this translated as compliance or exile. We held to our right to remain seated.
And so the case went to court, with one of the suspended girls—now expelled—becoming the chief scapegoat and martyr. Mary Frain, the softest-spoken of the original eight, came from a large, Irish-Catholic, working-class family. Right away her picture was in the papers, and Frain v. Baron made the evening news around the country.
Months passed as the legal battle dragged on, months in which the rest of us continued to attend school, but left the room during the Pledge to stand, glum but defiant, in the hall.
Throughout her ordeal, Mary’s father was outspoken and unflagging in his support for his daughter’s rights. As the son of immigrants and the leader of a local trade union, he must have known something about the price of freedom that the rest of us could only guess at. We began to understand what really was at stake when Mr. Frain was fired from his job and the family had to appeal to the community for money to buy groceries and pay rent.
Mary and her father finally won their case, but while the rest of us celebrated the victory, the Frains quietly packed up and left town.
In the Tribune’s “Wisdom from the Young” column, third-grader Gary Rodriguez of Central School says we recite the Pledge “for the soldiers that died.” The Frains were soldiers too, members of an unsung army that has fought for freedom since the inception of our republic, not on foreign shores but right here at home. These soldiers, however, do not wear uniforms, do not carry guns, and do not receive medals. They are often ridiculed, threatened, and murdered. And when they die, they are not honored by burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
As young Americans in the 1960s, we learned that freedom has its price, and allegiance means obligation. But we also learned that sometimes freedom means the right not to have to do something—the right to refrain from taking part in things you don’t believe in—and allegiance sometimes means obedience to a higher law, an individual truth.
“The authority of government . . . is still an impure one,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience, a treatise inspired by his protest against the United States’ war with Mexico, for which he was put in jail.
“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?”
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Copyright (c) 1987, 2016 by Charles Harrington Elster
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