Back in the fall of 1968 (I believe), I was a sophomore at Binghamton (NY) Central High School. This was, of course, a period of a good deal of strife across the country. The war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement were prominently on my mind in the months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April. I read a lot of King after his death, most notably his speeches in April 1967 opposing the Vietnam war. Also in 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for his refusal to be drafted into the armed service.
Both Ali and King evoked race in stating their positions. King asserted: “The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home… We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Ali declared: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.”
I don’t recall whether the incident to be described was just before or very shortly after John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
For these and many other reasons that led to mass racial violence in America, the notion of “liberty and justice for all” in America rang hollow for me. Still, it was a circumstance that led me to act on it.
There were standardized tests being given throughout the school. As a result, the morning announcements on the intercom, including the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, were suspended for several days. I decided that perhaps if the pledge wasn’t all that vital to them, maybe I need not say it.
One morning, though, my homeroom teacher, Harvey Shriber, decided unilaterally that we ought to do the recitation. “Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said. Everyone stood except me. He repeated his request, but I remained seated. Harvey got red-faced but said nothing.
The first period was math. The teacher was Joe Marino, who I learned later had the same birthday as I (March 7). He was a young teacher, in his first year, at least at BCHS. I was unsurprised when a burly man I had never seen before sat in the seat a couple of rows behind me.
After class, he asked me to go to his office. I asked where that was; it was the principal’s office. Ah, this was Joseph Kazlauskas, the new principal.
At lunchtime, I met with Dr. K, as he liked to be referred to. I remember that he asked me if I belonged to any religious organization that would prohibit me from participating in the pledge, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He cited the Supreme Court case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), about which Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “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.”
No, my opposition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance did not come from a religious point of view, certainly not from my specific faith’s position. In any case, I agreed to stand when the pledge was offered, but I didn’t have to say it.
Present tense story to follow, sooner than later.