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The meaning of the Stars and Stripes

The American flag as a promissory symbol

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in St. Augustine, Fla., on July 1, 1964. Associated Press

The meaning of the Stars and Stripes
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Flag Day (June 14) and Juneteenth (June 19) bracket a single week on America’s calendar. The former is a voluntary patriotic observance while the latter is a recently created federal holiday with deep roots. Together, they provide an opportunity for somber reflection on the meaning of the Stars and Stripes as a unifying symbol for every American.

Why draw the two days together? I recently read an op-ed in a foreign newspaper that suggested that America’s “Black people” are “flagless.” Should we see Flag Day and Juneteenth as polar opposites? No. They are intimately tied.

The Second Continental Congress adopted the precursor to today’s U.S. flag on June 14, 1777 and the day has been honored in a number of ways ever since, including an Act of Congress formally establishing it as a national holiday just after World War II.

Juneteenth marks the day, June 19, 1865, that the victims of slavery in far-off Texas finally learned of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) and their freedom, when Union troops landed in Galveston Bay. That symbol of slavery, the Confederate flag, had finally been effectively defeated with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. The U.S. flag, once again, was raised.

The values of many of the early colonies, from the Mayflower Compact to William Penn to founders such as John Adams, were pro-freedom and anti-slavery. Many thought slavery would die out due to elements in the Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance (which forbade the extension of slavery in the new states of the Ohio Territory). Nonetheless, slavery persisted and after its demise, a new institutionalized racism took hold in some parts of the country, from Jim Crow laws to segregated institutions to outright murder, rapine, and terrorism. At the same time, some black Americans served in public life, contributed enormously to our country, and even sacrificed their lives on foreign battlefields.

This tension in our history culminated, in many ways, with the use of the American flag as an important symbol of the civil rights movement. Rather than repudiate the American flag, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and others included the American flag in rallies. Perhaps the most famous of these instances was chronicled in Renata Adler’s April 10, 1965, article in The New Yorker, “Letter from Selma.” Many of those marching to the state capitol carried American flags and two men dramatically planted an American flag, evoking Iwo Jim. Adler observed, “After an invocation by a rabbi and speeches by the Reverend Andrew Young and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the crowd turned away from the Confederate and Alabama State flags flying from the capitol, faced its own American flags, and sang the national anthem.”

Our flag, from its stars to its stripes, should represent all Americans.

This scene reminds us of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” where he validated the covenants of American public life while demanding them to be equally applied to all people. King asserted, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He went on to declare, “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

The American flag, itself, is a symbol analogous to a promissory note. Its red band stands for the valor of its people, most notably the millions who have provided security at home and abroad, against enemies foreign and domestic. That includes the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airman, and millions of black Americans who served their country. The blue band stands for perseverance—a national character emphasizing the dogged, innovative spirit of the American pantheon of average citizens who became heroes in literature, education, business, science, the arts, public affairs, and social life.

The white band represents righteousness, and the intersection of these two holidays should be a teachable moment in our homes, neighborhoods, and national discourse. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence were pure, but their lived application was impure.

Thus, our flag, from its stars to its stripes, should represent all Americans. This June let us recover a sense of gratitude for those who have served the nation. Let us recommit to the values of our founding documents and let us teach an accurate history that includes the promise of the flag and the realities of sin in our past, so that this generation and future generations will cash that promissory note of freedom.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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