‘I Am What You Make Me’
The American flag has flown on the moon proclaiming the nation that dared to walk on its surface. It was cheered in European cities and towns liberated from Nazi occupation by American soldiers during World War II. And it has been burned in protests against U.S. policy at home and abroad.
It’s draped on the caskets of Americans who served their country and those who gave their lives defending it. Schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it. It flew as a show of unity and resilience at the ruins of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001. And it was carried by those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
The American flag and what it means to Americans and the rest of the world is as complicated as the nation it symbolizes. But that wasn’t the case when the Stars and Stripes was first sewn. “I can tell you the flag means more to you and me than it meant to George Washington,” said Dr. Peter Keim, a retired Pittsburgh-area physician, flag historian and collector.
That history is explored in artifacts, testimonials, timelines and videos in a new public exhibition space, One U.S. Flag Center, opening in the lobby of Koppers Tower, Downtown Pittsburgh, on Flag Day, June 14. It is part of the educational mission of the National Flag Foundation, a little known Pittsburgh nonprofit.
“The flag can mean different things to different people, but whatever those differences might be, it’s a thread that links everyone,” said National Flag Foundation Chairman Romel Nicholas, a Pittsburgh attorney. “We’re trying to educate and help people realize we are all Americans, regardless of our backgrounds or political persuasions, and the flag is common ground.”
The Continental Congress wanted the national flag to emphasize unity among the colonies that formed the new nation. But Congress offered little else about what they had in mind in the nation’s first flag act. The 30-word resolution, enacted June 14, 1777, simply read: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
How the stars in the canton, or “blue field,” should be arranged was not mentioned. Whether the stripes should be horizontal or vertical was not stipulated. No reason was given for selecting red, white and blue. No specific value or significance was attached to any of the colors.
The colors of the Stars and Stripes were likely chosen because they were the colors of the British Union Jack. The Grand Union flag, an immediate predecessor sewn at the behest of the unhappy colonies in 1775, had the Union Jack as its canton.
The most common values attached to the colors of the flag can be traced to the design of the nation’s Great Seal. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress ordered a seal that reflected the new nation’s values. When Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Congress, presented the final design six years later, he explained that white stood for purity and innocence; red, for hardiness and valor; and blue, for vigilance, perseverance and justice.
Since then, the design of the Stars and Stripes has changed 27 times. The garrison flag that withstood the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore by the British warships during the War of 1812 had 15 stars and 15 stripes representing the 13 original colonies and the states of Vermont and Kentucky. The sight of its having survived the battle inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to write a poem that was later put to music and renamed the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
That was the last flag to have 15 stripes. In a subsequent flag act, the flag’s design was tweaked to pare the number of stripes back to the original 13, adding only new stars to the canton when states were added to the Union.
And once a state’s star has been added, it has never been removed. U.S. soldiers fighting to restore the Union during the Civil War carried a Stars and Stripes into battle that included the stars of each of 11 secessionist states. President Abraham Lincoln refused to have those stars removed.
For much of its first 100 years, the flag was not as commonly flown as it is today. It was not often flown at schools, post offices or front porches. Early flags were hand sewn, limiting their availability. Flying the flag became more common later in 19th century, when the sewing machine allowed for mass production. Events, such as Fort McHenry and the nation’s 100th birthday, helped to increase the flag’s popularity. Campaigning politicians, recognizing the appeal, embroidered their names on flags and handed them out at rallies, Lincoln included.
Object of passion
As the most-recognized symbol of the United States, people’s sentiments toward the flag have long been colored by their perceptions of the nation and circumstances. “We’re very passionate about it,” Dr. Keim said.
He was asked to exhibit some 80 American flags from his collection in the display windows of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He recalled two women of different races, who had paused to look. One was comforting the other, who was sobbing. “You don’t usually see that in New York City, trust me.”
For years, he spoke to groups around the country about the flag and its history. As part of the talk, he’d ask the audience to describe what the Stars and Stripes meant to them, in one word. “Freedom,” “respect” and “liberty” were common descriptions, but there were others. He once asked a Houston, Texas middle school student what the flag meant to her. She said, “Welcome.”
The passion the flag evokes has left it vulnerable to abuse with limited legal means to protect it. The 1923 flag code, which outlines flag etiquette and care, prohibits abusing the flag but fails to specify punishment for those who do. That hasn’t stopped states from enacting their own flag protection laws. Gregory Lee Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $2,000 for violating one such law in Texas for burning an American flag outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas.
But his punishment didn’t stand. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that upholding the principles of the nation for which the flag stood outweighed bending them to protect the symbol itself. The Court saw Johnson’s action as speech protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, concurring with the majority opinion. “The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
The Stars and Stripes has stood as a reflection of the American people since their earliest days of independence. They carry the burden of defining what it stands for, according to a 1914 Flag Day speech by Franklin Lane, secretary of the interior under President Woodrow Wilson. He imagined that if the flag spoke, it would tell Americans: “I am no more than what you believe me to be and all that you believe I can be. I am what you make me, nothing more.”
Pittsburgh and the flag
The national flag foundation seeks to educate citizens about our national symbol
In the Koppers Tower lobby in downtown Pittsburgh, visitors can find an American flag that draped the train that took Abraham Lincoln back home to Springfield, Ill., after he was assassinated in 1865. And they can record their own flag story or explain what the Star and Stripes means to them.
The exhibition space, known as One U.S. Flag Center, is the work of a refreshed National Flag Foundation, a Pittsburgh nonprofit with a mission to advance Americans’ understanding of the U.S. flag, its history and significance and the etiquette around it.
The foundation has been in Pittsburgh since 1968, when it was established with the support of corporate leaders and others who saw an opportunity to build on the rich contributions the state and region have made to U.S. history. It has quietly become a national resource for students, teachers and citizens seeking to learn more about the flag.
Scheduled to open on Flag Day — June 14 — the center tells the story of the flag in timelines and text, photographs and artifacts, sound and video. It was designed to encourage conversation and reflection, said Brian Goerke, executive director of the National Flag Foundation. “What we want to happen is education, and people thinking about what the flags means to them.”
Visitors can experience “National Flag Foundation Moments,” a film series of flag-related vignettes, shown in a small theater in the center. Or, they might catch the videos on the jumbo screens of sports stadiums and arenas across the country, where they have been shown during games.
The foundation also arranged to light the top of the Koppers Tower red, white and blue on 50 evenings a year, including July 4, Martin Luther King Day and the D-Day anniversary. Its next initiative, Project Purple Heart, has the foundation working with veterans’ organizations to have a comprehensive database created of all Americans who earned the Purple Heart while serving the country, something that today does not exist.
The National Flag Foundation is not affiliated with federal, state or local government and relies on corporate and private donations for support.
For more information, visit nationalflagfoundation.org.