Garland W. Powell, a former World War I aviator who went on to serve as director of The American Legion’s Americanism Division, arranged an unusual conference in Washington June 14-15, 1923. Invited were representatives of 68 different associations from across the land, ranging from the League of Professional Pen Women to the Grand Army of the Republic to the American Federation of Labor. Military, commercial, fraternal and educational organizations were all included.
They came with a purpose: to produce one definitive set of rules – a code – for the proper display, handling and respect of the U.S. flag.
President Warren G. Harding delivered opening remarks, noting that America’s highest elected official would rarely address a group so small as the one assembled before him. But, Harding explained, he felt the purpose of the conference was worthy of presidential encouragement before work began. Regardless of their associations, many attendees were veterans, and President Harding recognized that, too.
“I can understand how the flag owes considerably more to the serviceman of the republic than it does to the ordinary citizen, but I can’t understand why the soldier or the sailor or the ex-serviceman in national defense owes any more to the flag than everybody else in the United States of America, and so everything we do to bring the flag into proper consideration of the republic ... deserves to be cordially commended.”
Over the next two days, the American Legion-led conference established what would become the U.S. Flag Code. Prior to that, standards for flag etiquette, treatment and display were inconsistent at best. “The flag ruffles beautifully or makes a splendid-looking rosette,” said Capt. George M. Chandler, who reported on the U.S. Army’s rules for civilian flag display. “Again, let us use our common sense. The flag is the emblem of our country, the mother of us all. Few of us would think it dignified ... to crush our mother’s picture into a rosette or gather it up into a festoon.”
For the next 19 years, The American Legion led a national campaign to distribute the flag rules. Schools adopted them. Local government activities were guided by them, as were parades and sporting events. Finally, in 1942, Congress passed the U.S. Flag Code, and the rules became law. By then, The American Legion had successfully led the effort to weave respect for our colors into the fabric of our nation.
Today, another American Legion-led coalition, the Citizens Flag Alliance, represents about 140 associations that seek passage of a constitutional amendment that would give Congress “power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” A 1989 Supreme Court decision ruled that U.S. flag desecration is protected under the First Amendment. Polls have shown that nearly 80 percent of the American public disagrees with the ruling. House Joint Resolution 19, introduced in January, once again reminds our elected lawmakers that those of us who swore with our lives to protect the freedoms symbolized by our flag will continue to ask for this one sacred exception, an amendment, even if it takes Congress time to catch up with the wishes of the republic, as was the case in passing the U.S. Flag Code.