SALT LAKE CITY — Less than an hour after Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap” in 1969, he and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin unveiled a plaque. “We came in peace for all mankind,” it proclaimed, alongside a photo showing all the continents of the Earth. Moments later, they planted an American flag into the lunar dust coating the Sea of Tranquility — a decision, in light of coming for “all mankind,” that was heavily discussed and contested. 

In a post on writer Bruce Watson’s American history blog, “The Attic,” he explains that debate raged at NASA over whether to plant the American flag or the United Nations flag. Perhaps even no flag at all. The universe beyond our planet had been declared neutral, and Americans didn’t want to be viewed as colonizing the moon. But since the lunar landing was a distinctly American achievement, made possible by thousands of people of diverse backgrounds from across the country, NASA decided the plaque would “dilute any jingoism,” in Watson’s words, and chose to go ahead with planting the stars and stripes.

Long before and since, the American flag’s history is one of unifying and dividing people. Its meaning is up to individual and changing interpretations. Post Civil War, the banner was used to signify what it meant to be an American. In the early 1940s, veneration of the flag conflicted with religious liberty in two landmark Supreme Court cases. It was coopted by liberal and conservative causes throughout the 20th century. And this year, ahead of a presidential election, flying the flag (or not) has been read by some as a signal of partisan loyalties.

“Flags have no intrinsic meaning,” flag expert Ted Kaye said. “They’re just pieces of cloth. They only have meaning that we attribute to them.”

Flags, he added, are supposed to be “for all.” They’re supposed to unify. But this July Fourth, questions about whether the American flag is a unifier — or can become one again — swirl throughout the country.  

Why flags matter

Kaye’s office overflows with flags. As one of the world’s most prominent vexillologists — someone who studies flags — he boasts a collection of some 300-400. He also (literally) wrote the book on flag design, and he’s consulted on redesigns from Fiji to the ongoing process in Salt Lake City. There’s perhaps no one better equipped to explain the origins of flags — a story that begins in China. 

Flags, Kaye explained, need to float in the wind. They can’t be made of heavy fabric. Silk is ideal, so flags originated where silk was available: in China. They eventually arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades. Their purpose then was to mark troops on the battlefield. Over time, that evolved to marking troops more generally, as part of military decorum and regalia. 

When maritime trade began in the 12th and 13th centuries, flags became markers on ships and on shores. Up to the American Revolution, the main use of flags continued to be marking ships at sea. Even the United States flag was created by the maritime subcommittee of the Continental Congress.

The national American flag was also used to mark government buildings — and nothing else. Before the Civil War, it was not common to fly the national flag as a civilian — a fact that remains true in many other countries. But after the war, the flag was deployed as part of the Union’s unifying efforts. “The flag became something that represented everybody,” Kaye said. 

What makes a flag good, with flag expert Ted Kaye

Five keys to successful flag design:

  1. Distinctiveness. You don’t want your flag to be confused with any other flag. However, regional similarities can enhance a flag, like in the Scandinavian countries. 
  2. Avoid lettering and seals. A flag is supposed to be understood while moving, from far away. Seals are heavy, difficult to produce, hard to see when blowing in the breeze and often represent only a government; a good flag should ideally represent all the people, businesses, government officials, animals and everything else within its borders or under its purview. Flags also need to be readable on both sides, and as Kaye observed, “If the flag of France said ‘France’ on it, you would just laugh.”
  3. Limit the number of colors. Ideally to two or three, but four or five at maximum. 
  4. Use meaningful symbolism. Think America’s 50 stars for 50 states, and 13 stripes for 13 colonies.
  5. Keep it simple. Ukraine’s flag, for example, features a blue rectangle atop a yellow rectangle, which represents the country’s wheat fields and its status as “the breadbasket of Europe.”

How does the U.S. flag stack up?

If each category were worth two out of 10 points, Kaye gives the stars and stripes a nine. It’s distinctive and recognizable; it doesn’t have lettering or seals; it features only three colors; and the stars and stripes mean something. The one-point smudge comes from prong five. Fifty stars are a lot of stars, and are hard to see from afar. Kaye favors the “Francis Hopkinson design,” which features 13 stars arranged in horizontal lines of 3-2-3-2-3.

The trend continued in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As waves of European immigrants arrived on American shores, the Grand Army of the Republic — an association for ex-Union soldiers — and other like-minded organizations launched campaigns to Americanize recent immigrants by distributing flags and placing them outside schools and inside classrooms. Thus began the uniquely American obsession with its flag. Around this time, in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance was introduced. 

Imbuing the flag with such patriotic significance proved combustible. Pledging allegiance approaches a form of worship, which led to clashes with the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

By 1940, the pledge — and by extension, the flag — reached the Supreme Court. At issue was a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses whose children were expelled from school for refusing to take part in the daily ritual of reciting the pledge for religious reasons. The high court backed the punishment in an 8-1 decision, ruling that schools had the power to “foster a sentiment of national unity” in children. “National unity is the basis of national security,” Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, although he conceded that, “Situations like the present are phases of the profoundest problem confronting a democracy.”

Violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses erupted, with opponents calling them un-American traitors. The law followed suit. Children refusing the pledge could be expelled, and their parents could be fined or sent to jail. 

Just three years after the court’s initial decision, another flag salute case was argued, again involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the makeup of the court had shifted, and it reversed its earlier ruling in a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Robert Jackson. “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn,” he wrote. “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

Since then, views on the flag have undergone, in Kaye’s words, “pendulum swings.” During the civil rights era it represented both segregation (briefly) and anti-discrimination. It expressed anti-Vietnam War sentiment, and patriotism in the Reagan years and after 9/11.

One particularly stark example came in 1989, when the Supreme Court struck down laws banning flag desecration in 48 states. Longtime Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch launched a campaign to ban flag burning via a constitutional amendment in response — a quest that came up one vote short in 2006.

And now, under President Donald Trump, the flag has become for some a symbol of presidential support. A view that was reinforced for Kaye recently, on June 14 — Flag Day. He decided to hang an American flag on a clothesline running from his house to a tree across the street in his “very, very liberal” Portland neighborhood. The next day, a neighbor approached his wife.

“You were flying a pretty big flag yesterday,” the neighbor said, implying that Kaye was using the flag to virtue signal his politics. Which, of course, he wasn’t; he’s a flag collector and it was Flag Day. 

“They’re just pieces of cloth,” Kaye said, echoing Jackson. They can mean different things to different people. And there’s perhaps no better example to be found of this phenomenon than in the American South. 

Multiple meanings

The banner often labeled “the Confederate flag” — a red rectangle with a blue X stamped by stars — is not actually the flag of the Confederacy, but its naval jack. It flew from ships to identify them. The Confederate battle flag — essentially a square version of the naval jack — did the same on land, but both later took on new cultural relevance. 

After the war, the flags symbolized the “lost cause narrative,” which holds that the cause of the Confederacy was just and heroic. “Especially as reconstruction was dismantled in the 1880s and 1890s,” Kaye said. It was embraced by the Ku Klux Klan as well as groups for Confederate veterans and their descendants. Thus it became a symbol of renewed hate and revisionist heritage.

“And so the biggest challenge with that flag is that when somebody flies it,” Kaye added, “you don’t know what they mean.” It could be an innocent-if-misguided appeal to Southern heritage, a general emblem of the South, a generic symbol of rebellion or one of hatred that truly embraces what the Confederacy stood for. 

Confederate imagery has long appeared in Southern state flags. Georgia’s, for example, featured the Confederate battle flag until 2003 (even the new flag looks very similar to the national Confederate flag, the “stars and bars.”) The battle flag, until just this week, also decorated the upper-left corner of the Mississippi state flag. Thanks in part to pressure from Mississippi’s university athletic programs, the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA, the state legislature voted to strip the Confederate symbol.

But Kathryn Green, a history professor at Mississippi Valley State University — a historically Black school in Itta Bena — said the change is only the beginning. Confederate monuments remain ubiquitous.  

“I’ve always been just horrified about this flag,” she said. “But I’m as — or even more — horrified about the Confederate monument that sits on our courthouse lawn” in the town of Greenwood, which is over 70% Black.

Besides the state flag issue, she sees the Confederate naval jack regularly flown behind pickup trucks. It’s a symbol of hatred to many, along with the battle flag, which is why she believed the change to the state’s flag was long past due.

Unlike the Confederate naval jack, the American flag, an emblem for American ideals yet achieved as well as past successes, has more potential to unite — a cause Green embraces. On her recent trip to Walmart, she (anecdotally) noticed American flags had replaced the Confederate naval jacks flying from pickups. “Maybe this is good,” she thought. “Maybe this is recognition that that rag is gone; that it’s time to come together as one people.”

A symbol of unity

Almost 50 years later after the moon landing, Watson himself faced a flag-related dilemma similar to NASA’s. He lives in the town of Montague in western Massachusetts — Bernie country, he calls it. He and his wife participated in a cross-country bike ride in the summer of 2017, from Puget Sound, Washington, to Boston. All along the way, he saw American flags.

“Why should I not see these when I come back to Massachusetts?” he thought. But when he suggested placing a flag outside their house to his wife, she slowed him down. “OK,” he remembers her saying, “but politically, that’s not us these days.” 

There is some philosophical basis to explain why some liberals have turned away from the flag, according to Vanderbilt political philosophy professor Robert Talisse, while Trump has, along with many of his supporters, (literally) embraced it. “The attitude about the flag on the conservative side looks more backwards-looking,” he said. Not in a negative way, but in a literal way. Conservatives derive meaning from past success, and that’s what they see in the flag.

“And I think liberal attitudes about the flag,” he continued, “and about other symbols and expressions of patriotism, look more to the future.” Which explains why Watson wants more liberals to embrace the flag — for its promise to evolve and do better.

Still, others have a different conception of patriotism and the flag. Like professional football player Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, shortly after he refused to stand for the the national anthem in protest of police brutality and inequality, he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Taht drew both outrage and support.

Watson, meanwhile, sees it more in the philosophical liberal tradition. Even though he believes the flag has become associated with conservative-brand of patriotism, Watson wants it to represent values. He wants to, as he wrote in USA Today, “take back our most enduring symbol.” His wife agreed, with one caveat.

Alongside the American flag, they would place a sign that reads, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad that you are our neighbor.” That way, passersby would be less likely to make judgments about them — although Watson feared this would only lead to assumptions about a politically “divided household.”

Watson left the flag out for about six months in 2018 before taking it down for winter. The next summer, it felt even harder to display. His wife “really didn’t want it up there,” so they refrained. 

But this year, he’s planning to put it out again. And beyond July Fourth, too. “Because right now, this country needs support — from all of its people.” It’s no moon landing, but it’s something to help energize some unity. Like he argued two years ago, he hopes more liberals will follow his example — even if he understands why some won’t.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly placed Mississippi Valley State University in Greenwood, Mississippi. The university is located in Itta Bena, Mississippi.