Seasons Of The Flag

A New Jersey county ordered its cars to display a decal—“Our Flag: Love It or Leave.”

The New York State Assembly debated a bill in 1969 to bar anyone convicted of burning a flag or draft card from holding future public office or a government job. In Burlington County, New Jersey, in 1970, the chairman of the county governing board, reasoning that “a little old-fashioned patriotism won’t hurt,” ordered all county-owned cars to display a decal— OUR FLAG: LOVE IT OR LEAVE .

The protesters started to wear the flag as well as burn it. A New York youth convicted of fashioning his pants from a flag was sentenced to 30 days behind bars and ordered to raise and lower the jail’s banner every day. A Brown University dropout, arrested at a Black Panther protest for donning the Stars and Stripes, said in his defense, “I saw wearing the flag as a symbol of my connection with our forefathers... some of whom wore the flag around their heads at Valley Forge with George Washington.” After his desecration conviction for wearing a flag shirt, Abbie Hoffman regretted “that I have only one shirt to give for my country.” When he appeared on the television program The Merv Griffin Show wearing the infamous article, the network blacked out all images of him, although it allowed viewers to hear his voice.

Authorities did not limit prosecution merely to burning or wearing the flag. In upstate New York one young man was arrested for driving a red, white, and blue Volkswagen; in California another was detained for using the flag as a beach towel.

Hippies also created alternate banners in protest. A group of Rutgers students marched to police headquarters, pulled down the flag, and replaced it with a plastic sheet with flowers attached. A former dean of the University of Buffalo Law School was arrested for flying a flag with a peace symbol instead of stars. In a New York City high school, there was a riot when students in an African-studies class replaced the classroom flag with a red, black, and green banner they termed the flag of black liberation.

The artist Jasper Johns had started incorporating the flag in his work in the 1950s, and there had been something playful in the canvases. He continued to use the flag in his art, but by the late sixties his work was reflecting the bitterness of the era. In his 1969 lithograph Moratorium , Johns painted dark stripes on a camouflaged background with a bullet hole in the center. In 1968 Cliff Joseph painted My Country, Right or Wrong , showing citizens blindfolded by flags, stumbling across a skull-littered ground. Two years later, Sam Wiener created Those Who Fail to Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It , draping flags on 12 coffins surrounded by mirrors on four sides, creating the illusion of endless caskets. In 1970, at the People’s Flag Show in New York, three artists were arrested for desecration and convicted.

The private sector was also attempting to shore up respect for the flag. Reader’s Digest mailed 18 million free flag decals to its readers in 1969. Dr. Whitney Smith, the director of the Flag Heritage Foundation, proposed steps to depoliticize the flag, including the repeal of all flag-desecration laws and a return to the original 13-star version. Hoping to attract antiwar adherents to his ideas, he also offered an alternate Pledge of Allegiance: “I salute the flag of the United States of America by committing myself to the principle that the nation for which it stands shall ever be indivisible and dedicated to liberty and justice for all.”

Despite all the prosecutorial efforts, courts often upheld the anti-flag actions as legitimate exhibitions of free speech. Both the Colorado Supreme Court and a lower federal court said that it was legal to wear the flag on the seat of one’s pants. A federal court of appeals overturned Abbie Hoffman’s desecration conviction stemming from his House Un-American Activities Committee appearance wearing a flag shirt; the judges ruled that the shirt’s intent was to mock the committee, not the flag. In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts desecration law as too vague, Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., writing that the broad law “fails to draw reasonably clear lines between the kinds of non-ceremonial treatment that are criminal and those that are not.” Courts also decreed that both students and teachers had the right to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance.

By the 1970s the flag had been deeply diminished as a national symbol, and even the bicentennial celebrations reinvigorated it only briefly. One quiet victim of this decline was Dan Salamone, who closed his flag-making company; his family had been producing flags since before the Civil War. His explanation for the business’s failure was that people were ashamed to fly the flag.