A 10-year-old Arkansas boy is refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school until our country does a better job of living up to its ideals.
"I looked at the end and it said 'with liberty and justice for all.' And there really isn't liberty and justice for all," Will Phillips told CNN recently. "Gays and lesbians can't marry. There's still a lot of racism and sexism in the world."
You know what? I think he's got a great point.
Most of us grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance automatically every morning at school. But how many kids take the time to think about what it really means?
The Pledge of Allegiance has been an American tradition since September 8, 1892, when a Boston-based magazine called The Youth's Companion published the recitation, originally called "The Pledge to the Flag," and suggested it be read as part of the next month's Columbus Day celebrations. It read: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all."
The Pledge was published anonymously and was not copyrighted; it is thought to have been written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who was forced to leave his church because of his Socialist sermons. The beginning of the Pledge was changed in 1924 to "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," and the controversial "under God" was added in 1954.
In October, after analyzing the text and asking his parents whether he was legally obligated to participate (he's not), Will decided to remain seated and silent when his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The substitute teacher asked him to stand; he respectfully refused. This went on for four days, until the teacher got angry with him; Will told her "With all due respect, ma'am, you can go jump off a bridge." He was sent to the principal's office.
“Yes, my son is 10,” Will's mom, Laura Phillips, told The Arkansas Times. “But he's probably more aware of the meaning of the pledge than a lot of adults. He's not just doing it rote recitation. We raised him to be aware of what's right, what's wrong, and what's fair.”
Arkansas News columnist John Brummett points out that forcing kids to recite the Pledge of Allegiance "is, in fact, kind of antithetical to our very principle of constitutionally guaranteed liberty.... a mass forced pledging of nationalistic allegiance is, when you really think about it, a perversion of the greater notion that we love and support our country by our own choice and for the very freedoms it grants us."
Will's peaceful protest has drawn ire from some pretty predictable sources. Classmates focused on the fact that he thinks gays should have the right to marry say he's "a gaywad." And he's been slammed by more than a few adults for being disrespectful, disobedient, and unpatriotic. "I remember this type of disrespect being in vogue among the lower class black kids at my high school, but I never expected to see it from a middle-class white kid," commenter "Ray" wrote at The Arkansas Times "To the parents I say 'United States of America, Love It Or Leave It, and take your little brat with you', " commenter "Monroe" added.
There's the irony, as far as I'm concerned: Exercising one's right to freedom of speech in order to insult a child for exercising his. Insisting that a kid shouldn't be free to disagree because doing so is disrespectful of the flag and everything it represents -- including freedom.
"Just because he's 10 years old doesn't mean he doesn't have opinions," his father, Jay Phillips, told CNN. "It doesn't mean he doesn't have rights and doesn't mean that he can't make a difference."
Parents, what do you think? Is civil disobedience a tool to be used by adults only, or do children have the right to peacefully protest? Where's the line when it comes to freedom?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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