In 1962, I joined the U.S. Army on my 17th birthday. I had just graduated from high school and was following in the tradition of my family’s military service. They had served in the Civil War and fought their way across Europe and the Pacific in two World Wars. Some were POWs and one, my first cousin and closest friend, Dennis, awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in Vietnam, was the first young man from our county to be killed in that war.
During my three years of enlistment, I served a tour of duty with the First Cav Division in Korea. When my active duty was finished in December 1965, I immediately entered SIU Carbondale on the GI Bill. Protests against the Vietnam War were already gripping the campus. They were abhorrent to me, particularly when the American flag was used to symbolize anger toward the government. But I was busy, carrying a full load of classes, working three part-time jobs, and trying to support a new family. By the time Old Main burned and the campus closed in the spring of 1970, I was beyond anger for the thousands of protesters desecrating our flag and destroying my beloved university.
I made no attempt to understand the difference between the symbolism of the flag and the substance of the Bill of Rights as it pertained to freedom to speak against perceived wrongs of our government.
Years later, as a member of Congress, I was forced to grapple with this volatile issue again. In my first term, a bill was submitted to amend the Constitution prohibiting the desecration of the American flag as a means of protest against our government. Now, I had to understand this issue in its deepest, broadest context. My family and I went to Philadelphia where I sat in Independence Hall, contemplating those early debates of our forefathers on issues of equality, justice and freedom. Moved to tears, I was about to cast a vote of which the historical significance reached back to arguments which formed the founding documents of our country, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
We drove to Gettysburg and I stood where our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, delivered his address, taking us back to our Declaration of Independence, which stated, “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When our forefathers thought they had been denied these rights long enough by the King of England, they fought a Revolutionary War to gain them. And they fought a Civil War to extend those rights to slaves. Over the next 100 years, they fought all over the world to secure these rights for other people.
President Kennedy spoke of this in his inaugural address. He said, “These same revolutionary beliefs for which our forefathers fought are still at issue around the globe today. The belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the State, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first Revolution.” The Declaration goes on to say that when any form of government becomes destructive of these rights then it is the right of the people to protest and alter that form of government so that those rights are secured to the people. And in the 1960s and '70s, people protested against what they believed was an unjust war which imperiled their lives, their freedoms, and their pursuit of happiness. They believed that nearly 60,000 deaths were enough in a war our government either could not or would not win.
When hundreds of thousands of mostly white young men in the '60s and thousands of mostly black young men today protest against their government, it is because they feel their God-given rights are threatened. But why involve the flag? In a Supreme Court decision, Board of Education v. Barnett in 1943, Justice Jackson wrote words especially relevant to this issue. He said, “Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of freedom’s substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order” — i.e. our flag.
For many, it is not enough to write a letter to their congressman, attend a meeting or participate in a march. They must take the most important thing symbolizing our freedom — the flag — and cast it at the feet of their government to show how emphatically they disagree with government allowing the infringement of their rights. Millions of people of color in our country today feel threatened. They just want to enjoy the same security and freedom we all enjoy and the flag has become central to their protest precisely because it matters, as it did in the '60s to an earlier generation.
When I protested as a young man in my church that it was not necessary for God to send His only Son to be sacrificed for my freedom, that He could have provided another way, the pastor said, “Oh yes it was, because He could not win your freedom from sin by sacrificing that which didn’t matter much, He had to sacrifice the most important thing He loved, His Son.”
The Supreme Court has said that the use of the flag in dissent against the government does not diminish it or the contribution of the men and women who fought for our freedom, but instead stands as a powerful symbol to illustrate the substance of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
I listened carefully to the debate in 1990 on the flag desecration amendment which for the first time in 200 years would have amended our Bill of Rights. These words from President Reagan's solicitor general, Charles Fried, express my beliefs entirely. “The flag, as all in this debate agree, symbolizes our nation, its history, its values. We love the flag because it symbolizes the United States; but we must love the Constitution even more, because the Constitution is not a symbol. It is the thing itself.”