The US Flag in the 20th Century (2nd half)

19 September 1952

George Reeves as Superman, and the US flag as... itself.
George Reeves as Superman, and the US flag as… itself.

The Adventures of Superman begins airing on American television, following an undocumented alien immigrant as he fights “the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”.  The famous opening sequence ends with George Reeves standing before a US flag, somehow briskly flying in outer space.  In less than 20 years, fiction will become reality, insofar as the flag is concerned.


14 June 1954

Flag.  Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels.  By Jasper Johns, 1954-55.
Flag. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels. By Jasper Johns, 1954-55.

To heed off “godless Communism” President Eisenhower adds the controversial words Under God to the Pledge of Allegiance (though no one knows what they mean exactly).  Senator Joe McCarthy ends his hearings on Communist infiltration of the US Army and State Department three days later. In this period of American cultural turbulence, 24 year-old Jasper Johns begins work on his dream-inspired, multi-layered encaustic masterpiece Flagthe first of his many variations on this theme.


4 July 1960

The Age of the 50-star US flag begins.  The star pattern cleverly embeds a 5 x 4 grid within a 6 x 5 grid: 20 + 30 = 50!
The Age of the 50-star US flag begins. The star pattern cleverly embeds a 5 x 4 grid within a 6 x 5 grid: 20 + 30 = 50!

Current 50-star flag adopted, recognizing Hawaiian statehood.  (It replaces a short-lived, and seldom manufactured, 49-star version from the year before.)


12 June 1963

Civil rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in 1965.
Civil rights activists march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in 1965.

On Flag Day, Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, MS.  As Woden Teachout explains in Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism, by the late 1950s segregationists had for the most part abandoned the US flag — a symbol of Federally-imposed desegregation — in favor of the Confederate, and young people in the civil rights movement had opportunistically reclaimed the Stars and Stripes as their own; Evers was instrumental in furthering the flag’s adoption both as a symbol and as a protest tactic (signs could be easily ripped out of hands, but images of police ripping away flags conveyed protesters’ message quite powerfully).


3 October 1968

Abby Hoffman arrested on the way to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Abby Hoffman arrested on his way to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Theatrical “Yippie” activist Abby Hoffman is arrested and charged that he “knowingly cast contempt upon the flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing and defiling it” for wearing a shirt with a flag motif with satirical political buttons pinned to it.  Three months earlier Congress had for the first time passed a Federal law against flag “desecration”, in response to popular outrage over several flag-burnings in political protests against the Vietnam war.  Hoffman v. United States is the first case to be tried against the new law.  Hoffman takes advantage of this historic moment by telling the judge, Your honor, I regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.


20 July 1969

Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin salutes the Apollo 11 flag.
Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin salutes the Apollo 11 flag.  (Photo, presumably, by N. Armstrong.)

Neil Armstrong places the US flag on the Moon.  Lest this apparently imperialistic act be misunderstood, a plaque on the Eagle‘s ladder clarifies we came in peace for all mankind.  That the US had beaten the USSR in this Cold War race to the Moon needed no clarification beyond the flag.


2 April 1970

20th Century Fox releases Patton, starring George C. Scott as controversial World War 2 General George C. Patton.  The film, which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, opens in an unforgettable fashion with the general, in front of a huge 48-star flag, addressing unseen troops in a monologue based on his speech to the Third Army.


5 April 1976

The Soiling of Old Glory.
The Soiling of Old Glory.

Photojournalist Stanley Forman captures lawyer and civil rights activist Ted Landsmark being attacked with the flag during an anti-desegregation protest outside Boston City Hall.  Louis Masur’s 2008 book The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America unpacks its many layers of meaning.


22 March 1980

The Great American Flag at its unveiling at the Evansville, IN airport.
The Great American Flag at its unveiling at the Evansville, IN airport.

Len Silverfine‘s 7-ton, 210-by-411 foot “Great American Flag” is unveiled before 10,000 onlookers at the Evansville, IN airport.  It’s never been hung from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, as originally engineered, but has made 12 appearances, including two Flag Days at the Washington Monument (1980 and 1991) and at the Flight 93 crash site on 24 September 2001.


1984 August 22

Gregory Lee Johnson (2nd from right) and his lawyer William Kunstler (on right) before the Supreme Court.
Gregory Lee Johnson (2nd from right) and his lawyer William Kunstler (on right) before the Supreme Court.

Gregory “Joey” Johnson, a member of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, burns the flag at a political demonstration at Dallas City Hall during the 1984 Republican National Convention.  He is arrested, charged with, and convicted of the crime of “desecration of a venerated object” under a Texas penal code.  He appeals the conviction all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 1989 rules in his favor in Texas v. Johnson, finding his act to be symbolic speech protected the the First Amendment.


1988-1990

What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?  An
What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? An “installation for audience participation” by activist artist Dread Scott. Its display at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 became a national controversy.

Obligatory patriotism becomes a highly politicized national issue. In the 1988 presidential election, George H. W. Bush attacked his opponent Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 1977 veto of a Massachusetts law that would have required teachers begin each school day by leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance. As President, in 1989 Bush calls Dread Scott’s installation in Chicago “disgraceful”.  The anti-flag protection decision Texas v. Johnson is announced in June. Less than a month later an outraged Congress passes a Flag Protection Act targeting, regardless of motive: whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States.  Outraged, in turn, by this law — one that was specifically worded to outlaw his art — Dread Scott and three others burn flags on the US Capitol steps, and are arrested and charged with violating it.  Their case, United States v. Eichman, is appealed to the Supreme Court which strikes down the 1989 Act, finding the government’s intent, despite claims to the contrary, to be to prohibit that same forms of symbolic speech the court had just ruled in Johnson were protected under the First Amendment.  Following the Eichman ruling, general public interest peters out, as a predicted wave of flag burnings and underfoot tramplings fails to happen.

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Author: SDM

Ethnography * Technology * Design

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