Boy Scouts with wreath, 1924

June 14, 2010

From the digital collections at the Library of Congress:

Boy Scout wreath, 1924 - Library of Congress Digital Collection, National Photo Company Collection

Boy Scout wreath, 1924 - Library of Congress Digital Collection, National Photo Company Collection (Call Number: LC-F8- 28581 (P&P))

Three Boy Scouts and a wreath with the BSA’s fleur de lis, in 1924.  Who are the Scouts?  What was the occasion?  Questions we have in the centennial year of Boy Scouting.

This photo is in the middle of a collection of photos taken at the funeral of President Woodrow Wilson, which was on February 6, 1924.  Was this the Boy Scouts’ tribute to Wilson?  By the way, Wilson is the only president interred in the District of Columbia (Arlington National Cemetery is across the Potomac River, in Virginia).  Wilson’s sarcophagus in in the main chapel of the National Cathedral.

Woodrow Wilson's tomb in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.  - Wikimedia image

Woodrow Wilson's tomb in the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. - Wikimedia image


1943 conflict: Flag, First Amendment’s Establishment Clause

June 14, 2010

Historic irony: On Flag Day in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of West Virginia vs. Barnette.

Billy Gobitis explained why he would not salute the U.S. flag, November 5, 1935 - Library of Congress collection

Image 1 - Billy Gobitas explained why he would not salute the U.S. flag, November 5, 1935 - Library of Congress collection

The case started earlier, in 1935, when a 10-year-old student in West Virginia, sticking to his Jehovah’s Witness principles, refused to salute the U.S. flag in a state-required pledge of allegiance. From the Library of Congress:

“I do not salute the flag because I have promised to do the will of God,” wrote ten-year-old Billy Gobitas (1925-1989) to the Minersville, Pennsylvania, school board in 1935. His refusal, and that of his sister Lillian (age twelve), touched off one of several constitutional legal cases delineating the tension between the state’s authority to require respect for national symbols and an individual’s right to freedom of speech and religion.

The Gobitas children attended a public school which, as did most public schools at that time, required all students to salute and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States. The Gobitas children were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a church that in 1935 believed that the ceremonial saluting of a national flag was a form of idolatry, a violation of the commandment in Exodus 20:4-6 that “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor bow down to them. . . .” and forbidden as well by John 5:21 and Matthew 22:21. On 22 October 1935, Billy Gobitas acted on this belief and refused to participate in the daily flag and pledge ceremony. The next day Lillian Gobitas did the same. In this letter Billy Gobitas in his own hand explained his reasons to the school board, but on 6 November 1935, the directors of the Minersville School District voted to expel the two children for insubordination.

The Watch Tower Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sued on behalf of the children. The decisions of both the United States district court and court of appeals was in favor of the right of the children to refuse to salute. But in 1940 the United States Supreme Court by an eight-to-one vote reversed these lower court decisions and ruled that the government had the authority to compel respect for the flag as a key symbol of national unity. Minersville v. Gobitis [a printer’s error has enshrined a misspelling of the Gobitas name in legal records] was not, however, the last legal word on the subject. In 1943 the Supreme Court by a six-to-three vote in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, another case involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reconsidered its decision in Gobitis and held that the right of free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution denies the government the authority to compel the saluting of the American flag or the recitation of the pledge of allegiance.

There had been strong public reaction against the Gobitis decision, which had been written by Justice Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965). In the court term immediately following the decision, Frankfurter noted in his scrapbook that Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980) told him that Justice Hugo LaFayette Black (1886-1971) had changed his mind about the Gobitis case. Frankfurter asked, “Has Hugo been re-reading the Constitution during the summer?” Douglas replied, “No–he has been reading the papers.”1 The Library’s William Gobitas Papers showcase the perspective of a litigant, whereas the abstract legal considerations raised by Gobitis and other cases are represented in the papers of numerous Supreme Court justices held by the Manuscript Division.

1. Quoted in H. N. Hirsch, The Enigma of Felix Frankfurter (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 152.

John E. Haynes and David Wigdor, Manuscript Division

Second page, Billy Gobitiss explanation of why he will not salute the U.S. flag - Library of Congress

Second page, Billy Gobitas's explanation of why he will not salute the U.S. flag: "I do not salute the flag not because I do not love my country but I love my country and I love God more and I must obey His commandments." - Library of Congress

Supreme Court justices do not often get a chance to reconsider their decisions. For example, overturning Plessy vs. Ferguson from 1896 took until 1954 in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In the flag salute/pledge of allegiance cases Justice Hugo Black had a change of mind, and when a similar case from West Virginia fell on the Court’s doorstep in 1943, the earlier Gobitis decision was reversed.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert H. Jackson said:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all other Americans, thereby have the right to refuse to say what they and their faith consider to be a vain oath.

And that, boys and girls, is what the First Amendment means.

Resources:


Flag Day 2010 – Wave those stars and stripes

June 14, 2010

June 14th marks the anniversary of the resolution passed by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, adopting the Stars and Stripes as the national flag.

Fly your flag today. This is one of the score of dates upon which Congress suggests we fly our flags.

Flag Day 1916, parade in Washington, D.C. - employees of National Geographic Society march - photo by Gilbert Grosvenor

Flag Day 1916, parade in Washington, D.C. - employees of National Geographic Society march - photo by Gilbert Grosvenor

The photo above drips with history. Here’s the description from the National Geographic Society site:

One hundred and fifty National Geographic Society employees march in the Preparedness Parade on Flag Day, June 14, in 1916. With WWI underway in Europe and increasing tensions along the Mexican border, President Woodrow Wilson marched alongside 60,000 participants in the parade, just one event of many around the country intended to rededicate the American people to the ideals of the nation.

Not only the anniversary of the day the flag was adopted by Congress, Flag Day is also the anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s controversial addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

(Text adapted from “:Culture: Allegiance to the Pledge?” June 2006, National Geographic magazine)

The first presidential declaration of Flag Day was 1916, by President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson won re-election the following November with his pledge to keep America out of World War I, but by April of 1917 he would ask for a declaration of war after Germany resumed torpedoing of U.S. ships. The photo shows an America dedicated to peace but closer to war than anyone imagined. Because the suffragettes supported Wilson so strongly, he returned the favor, supporting an amendment to the Constitution to grant women a Constitutional right to vote. The amendment passed Congress with Wilson’s support and was ratified by the states.

The flags of 1916 should have carried 48 stars. New Mexico and Arizona were the 47th and 48th states, Arizona joining the union in 1913. No new states would be added until Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. That 46-year period marked the longest time the U.S. had gone without adding states, until today. No new states have been added since Hawaii, more than 49 years ago. (U.S. history students: Have ever heard of an essay, “Manifest destiny fulfilled?”)

150 employees of the National Geographic Society marched, and as the proud CEO of any organization, Society founder Gilbert H. Grosvenor wanted a photo of his organization’s contribution to the parade. Notice that Grosvenor himself is the photographer.

I wonder if Woodrow Wilson took any photos that day, and where they might be hidden.

History of Flag Day from a larger perspective, from the Library of Congress:

Since 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson issued a presidential proclamation establishing a national Flag Day on June 14, Americans have commemorated the adoption of the Stars and Stripes by celebrating June 14 as Flag Day. Prior to 1916, many localities and a few states had been celebrating the day for years. Congressional legislation designating that date as the national Flag Day was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1949; the legislation also called upon the president to issue a flag day proclamation every year.

According to legend, in 1776, George Washington commissioned Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross to create a flag for the new nation. Scholars debate this legend, but agree that Mrs. Ross most likely knew Washington and sewed flags. To date, there have been twenty-seven official versions of the flag, but the arrangement of the stars varied according to the flag-makers’ preferences until 1912 when President Taft standardized the then-new flag’s forty-eight stars into six rows of eight. The forty-nine-star flag (1959-60), as well as the fifty-star flag, also have standardized star patterns. The current version of the flag dates to July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the fiftieth state on August 21, 1959.

Fly your flag with pride today.

Elmhurst Flag Day 1939, DuPage County Centennial - Posters From the WPA

Elmhurst Flag Day 1939, DuPage County Centennial - Posters From the WPA

Elmhurst flag day, June 18, 1939, Du Page County centennial / Beauparlant.
Chicago, Ill.: WPA Federal Art Project, 1939.
By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943

This is an encore post, from June 14, 2009


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