We say it without thinking. We say it without question. Over and over, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, learned in childhood. Every morning, Monday through Friday, 53 million schoolchildren, a new generation of Americans, place their hands on their hearts and utter these words: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Inspiring words. A beautiful ode to patriotism. But if we were to think about it, if we were to question it, we’d realize something’s missing. Our pledge lacks one powerful word: Equality.
Did you know the word equality was originally intended as part of the pledge? And then discarded?
In 1892, when Baptist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931) wrote the first version for schoolchildren to recite at a commemoration of the 400th Anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World, it read: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one nation, indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.” It was an abridged version.
Bellamy was inspired by the ideas of his cousin, Edward Bellamy, author of the American socialist utopian novels, Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897). He strongly considered placing the word equality at the end of the Pledge. But deliberately left it out. Besides being a man of the cloth, Bellamy was also chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. He knew that his colleagues were, for the most part, against equality — for women and African Americans. The word equality would never fly.
One man wasn’t about to slip in a concept that had so long been denied in America. For hundreds of years the American economy had been based on slavery. Even our first President, George Washington, owned slaves. And yet, our Declaration of Independence proclaimed: “All men are created equal.” What of the slaves? Oh yes – the fine print, so to speak. They weren’t considered men. They were considered property.
Surely, after the Civil War, when the slaves were freed, when men were no longer property, they were equal, were they not? Not really. For another 100 years, until the Civil Rights Act was passed, African-Americans suffered through segregation, humiliation, violence and lynchings. They lived in a society that in many, many ways refused to allow them the right of equality. This was a right that was jealously guarded by white men. Women weren’t given the vote until 1920. Equal pay for the same job as a man — that’s still at issue. Native Americans, the indigenous people who preceded European colonization by 10,000 years, were not granted citizenship until 1924. The reason? They weren’t considered equal.
America is a nation of reinvention. It’s practically a national pastime. Think of the many amendments made to our Constitution for over 200 years. The Pledge of Allegiance has also been altered — four times in fact — since Bellamy’s composition. Thus, the inclusion of the full name of our country, “the United States of America.” The phrase “under God” was added by an act of Congress in 1954, at the urging of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And yet, the revolutionary concept of equality, pondered and discarded by Bellamy over 100 years ago, is still not part of our Pledge. Bellamy, who quit the ministry in protest of the bigotry he encountered there, died a disappointed man, grappling to understand the painful contradictions in the country he loved.
Today we have a different culture, or so we aspire. America has searched its soul and legislated equality – for women, African-Americans, Native Americans and others. Scattered across the 50 states we are seeing legislation for equality for gay Americans. Equality for people who love one another, want to marry and enjoy equal protection under the law. It’s a slow process. But it’s happening.
Tolerance, the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or racial or ethnic differences of others, is an ideal, but most assuredly still not practiced universally. That’s because on a fundamental level, the right of equality is still questioned. When one group denies another group these rights it can set off a dangerous sequence. Hitler brainwashed a nation to believe that Jews were not equal to the so-called Aryans. First, the Jews lost all rights accorded to other Germans. Finally, horrifically, they even lost the right to live. In recent times we are still seeing the same ugly progression of prejudice, hatred, violence and ultimately genocide, in places like Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda.
Still, in America, ask anyone on the street if they believe in the right of equality, especially if you point a television camera or microphone at them, and they’ll probably say yes. It’s because we really have come very far since 1892. We have elected the first African-American President, after all. That’s really far. But…not far enough. Equality is still a moving target.
America is a great nation. For most Americans, it’s the greatest country in the world. But one of things that makes America so great is its ability to look inward, to shine a light on its dark places. And make changes. And yet, in the course of 100 years, despite several modifications, the Pledge of Allegiance has never been restored to its true and most powerful form.
What if for the last 100 years while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, we had as a nation voiced the concept of equality? Imagine how that might have influenced our collective mindset. Imagine what might have been if we had not been cheated out of Bellamy’s original concept and vision. We might have embraced equality generations ago and avoided many heartaches as a nation.
It’s time for the Pledge of Allegiance to be changed once again. Let it live up to and embody the promise of the founding fathers, who proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” No fine print this time. Our Pledge should follow suit, and conclude with the words: “with liberty, justice and equality for all.” Maybe if we say it enough, we might actually one day fully believe it. And it might actually come to be.
What do you think? If you agree, it’s time to shout it from the mountaintops. Let’s make history together. Send us your comments. I will take this message to legislators in Washington. Let America once again be a beacon of hope to the world. It’s time we stopped committing, on a daily basis, the sin of omission.