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John Embry: "What Does the Flag Mean to You?"

John Embry

The following remarks were delivered at the Butler County DAR Flag Ceremony on Friday, June 14 - Flag Day.   


Thank you so much.  I really appreciate this opportunity to offer a few remarks on a day that oftentimes seems to be overlooked - well, perhaps that is true in other communities but not ours.  Through the efforts of so many of our local organizations, present here today, our community, I believe, does an outstanding job commemorating days like these, as well as honoring our veterans, and tirelessly promoting love of country.  I am so honored to be a small part of those efforts today.

In speaking about our nation's flag, it can be a daunting task, even for a guy that has been teaching 8th grade American History for 25 years.  Why is that the case?  In part because the flag can mean different things to different people.  More on that a little later.

A few facts ... I guess it all began way back in 1777.   

On that 14th of June, Congress made the Flag Resolution of 1777, stating: “The flag of the United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, with a union of thirteen stars of white on a blue field …” Official announcement of the new flag was not made until Sept. 3, 1777.

We've grown a lot since then.

Following a few circular designs, in 1818, after a few design changes, the United States Congress decided to retain the flag’s original 13 stripes and add new stars to reflect each new state that entered the union.

Each time a state was added to the union, a star was added. Today, there are 50 stars, one for each state in the union, but the 13 stripes remain.

Fast forward a bit, including through a terrible Civil War that threatened the flag and the Union itself, and Flag Day proper became official by President Woodrow Wilson with a presidential proclamation issued on May 30, 1916. Although folks and communities had been celebrating Flag Day in various capacities for a while by then, the 1916 proclamation put it in the books, so to speak, although it is not an official federal holiday.  

You might think that's the end of the story but not quite yet.  As an educator, I would be neglectful if I didn't mention Bob - Bob Heft - who as a high school student, and following a call from President Eisenhower, is credited with the flag finally taking its finished form.  His 1958 design includes the traditional 50 stars in a field that includes five rows of six stars and four rows of five stars. I won't repeat Bob's whole story here but there are some more details that make for a quite interesting story.    

I guess in some ways the pertinent question that all Americans should ponder is "What does the flag mean to you?"   In the crazy world of social media and 24/7 news, it seems that the American flag has unfortunately become a divisive symbol.  To be fair, it's probably been that way for a while now - dating back to the late 1960s and 70s for sure but even before that.  It's fair to say that two famous Kentuckians - Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - had divergent views as well.   

For those who have served or are currently serving in the military, its meaning is pretty clear - service, sacrifice, honor; for those who feel like they have suffered injustice by this country, its meaning is probably somewhat different because of their experiences.  Then, there are a bunch of folks in the middle - shaped neither by direct military service or perceived oppression.  Who's right? Who's wrong?  Does it matter?  

My answer to the first two questions is neither.  My answer to the third question in an emphatic YES! It does matter.

How did I reach these conclusions?  It's simple.  The American flag and all that it represents is bigger than one person, bigger than one group, far more expansive than the various demographic breakdowns of a nation.  We live in a culture that tends to separate Americans into all kinds of special-interest groups, creating hyphenated citizens and categories and levels of victimization -- all with the fixation on highlighting what divides us, instead of celebrating what we have in common.  The American Flag pushes back against this divisive narrative.  It's STARS promote the unity of a diverse people - the proverbial melting pot with 50 states; it's STRIPES harken back to our beginnings and seems to acknowledge that while as a nation we haven't  gotten everything right but that  we're always striving to be better, to find those "Better Angels of Our Nature," as President Lincoln would say in his first inaugural address.  

Earlier I asked the question - What Does The Flag Mean to You?  For me, I often think back to Francis Scott Key, who, as you know, penned the now-famous words of The Star-Spangled Banner - our National Anthem.  Key had been detained on a British ship as the British prepared to bomb Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812.  Coming shortly after our capital was burned, Key had a front row seat as the Battle of Baltimore began in September of 1814.   Basically, the British bombed the American fort in hopes of forcing it to surrender.  

Key watched.  He waited.  Nervously.  All through the no means certain what the outcome would be...which flag would be flying the next morning?

To some degree, I think that is where many of us are today as we are inundated by disturbing headlines, breaking news, confusion, frustration, and some just plain weird stuff.  In 2024, We are Watching. We are Waiting.  We are nervous about our great nation, its future.  Can we see it through the long night?  Will the great American experiment continue?  Are we divided as a people beyond repair? Will our flag still be standing the next day? 

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bomb bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Pray for your nation and its leaders.  Support all those who defend it.  Rally around the flag of this great nation that has done more to advance the cause of freedom than any other in the world.  Defend the common American values that we hold dear.  

President Ronald Reagan summed it up pretty well in his 1981 proclamation about Flag Day.

"When we honor our flag we honor what we stand for as a Nation—freedom, equality, justice, and hope.


Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.  It has been an honor.


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