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Old Glory

Posted: February 29, 2012 4:47 p.m.
Updated: March 2, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Several weeks ago, the untimely death of a well-known singer caused a media frenzy of sorts and snared the attention of many. Most of us saw at least one report relating to the death of Whitney Houston and the apparent basis of her demise. In fact, I believe it safe to say, the majority would agree Ms. Houston’s death was a sad and senseless loss of life for such a young and gifted performer. Few would debate this veracity. However, in this case, for reasons unknown, there appeared to be a penalty for the fame, fortune, and talent; tragic for those who loved her; disheartening for her fans. Moreover, in the days surrounding Ms. Houston’s funeral, an interesting amount of attention was given to a decision made by the Governor of New Jersey to honor the singer as “a daughter of New Jersey.” The governor’s judgment ordering U.S. and state flags to be flown at half-staff at all state government buildings on the day of Ms. Houston’s funeral has sparked questions, debates, and discussions on appropriate flag protocol in the United States.

Some deem the singer worthy of this honor; others do not. Some believe the honor should be reserved for fallen soldiers, first-responders, elected officials. This isn’t the first time protocol and etiquette of our flag has been disputed. Last year, flags were lowered to half-staff for Clarence Clemons, a brilliant saxophonist, again by the governor of New Jersey. The mayor of Carson, Calif., ordered the flag outside City Hall lowered to half-staff on the day of Michael Jackson’s funeral, later reversing his decision. Last October, an Occupy Wall Street participant in California used a flag as a chew toy for his dog.  In 2011, a presidential candidate was photographed signing an American flag for a supporter. The Mayor of Buffalo ordered all flags at city buildings lowered in honor of journalist Tim Russert. A Super Bowl half-time show performer wore an American flag to later remove and hurl over his head. And a U.S. Attorney General ordered flags flown at half-staff at U.S. Department of Justice buildings in honor of fallen DEA agents. While some of the above gestures can be perceived, plain and simple, as good-faith misunderstandings, some are blatant violations of our flag.

All of this has forced me to examine the history of “Old Glory” and the protocol and etiquette behind her. On Jan. 1, 1776, the Continental Army was reorganized placing American forces under George Washington’s control. On New Year’s Day, the Continental Army was laying siege to Boston. Washington ordered the Grand Union flag hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill. The flag had 13 alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act. Between 1777 and 1960, Congress has passed several acts that changed the shape, design, and arrangement of the flag and allowed for additional stars and stripes to be added to reflect the admission of each new state. Today, our flag consists of 13 horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with six white. The stripes represent the original 13 colonies; the stars, the 50 states of the Union. The colors of the flag are symbolic as well: red symbolizes hardiness and valor; white, purity and innocence; and blue, vigilance, perseverance, and justice. Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1814 and it officially became our national anthem in 1931. On Aug. 3, 1949, President Truman officially declared June 14 as Flag Day.

Suffice it to say that since 9/11, most Americans no longer look at our flag in the same way. “More than simply a piece of fabric, … and is an important symbol of national identity.” And this we must preserve. Many questions have arisen on the laws relating to our flag’s handling, display, and use. Both the state and federal governments have enacted legislation on this very subject. On the national level, the Federal Flag Code (FFC) provides uniform guidelines for the display of and respect shown to the flag. The FFC does not assert to cover all possible situations. The Flag Code does suggest a general rule by which flag practices may be fairly tested: “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.”

The following only touch on some of the codes:  The Flag should be lighted at all times, either by sunlight or by an appropriate light source. The Flag is flown upside down only as a distress signal. The Flag should not be part of a costume or athletic uniform. The Flag should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it. When the Flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. When a Flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of our country, it should be destroyed by burning in a dignified manner. When more than one flag is displayed from the same flagpole, the flag of the U.S. must always be on top. The Flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free. More, “by the order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the U.S. Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory.” And, in the death of a present or former government official of the U.S. and the death of a member of the Armed Forces who dies while on active duty, the Governor of that state may proclaim the National flag flown at half-staff. 

 “The flag is the embodiment not of sentiment, but of history.”

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