tv 1940s Supreme Court Cases on Flag Salute in Schools CSPAN March 30, 2019 4:30pm-4:56pm EDT
children were jehovah's witnesses who do not believe in pledging to symbols. the 1940 u.s. supreme court minersville school district ruled against the jehovah's witnesses. in 1943, the decision was overturned by the supreme court the west virginia versus state board of education v. barnette case. next, world headquarters of jehovah's witnesses seigniorage communications officer robert zick tells the story of both cases and talks with the gobitasr of lillian this is.part of a daylong event hosted by the robert h. jackson center to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1943 first amendment ruling. it is about 45 minutes. robert: one of the first cases of note was the gobitis versus minersville case, and to present an illustrated hesitation is robert zic's of the world the
quarters of jehovah's witnessk, and they will be presenting from gobitis to barnette. robert: it is a tough act to follow. i will need a screen. first of all, this gives me a nice opportunity to just mentione we are really appreciative for the privilege of being here at the jackson center. we work with a tremendous staff, professional, qualified, and really such a pleasure to work with. of course, greg peterson, the flesh and spirit behind the center, and helping to open up an opportunity to speak to widened audience, and all the details, and making sure
everything worked smoothly. you have a good program to look at. we really appreciate all the effort. for all of you who have come, we hope it is educational and interesting. in that regard, i want to draw your attention to the programming you received. on the back page, just to mention this briefly, on the back page, there is a little qr code link. that will take you to an area to download information. if you don't get a chance to look at the panels outside, you might not get an opportunity later, you can download those there with additional information. there is a brief survey, so if you have any thoughts of what we can do to improve parts of the program you enjoyed, please make a few comments. they are optional. it will give us an idea of what to do in the future we have another opportunity. if you are with the media, you can always send an email and we would be happy to give additional information and answer questions. have a lot of ground to cover. let's get started.
well, minersville school , westct versus gobitas virginia state board of education versus barnette. that is a mouthful. and those case names represented two very distinct but closely related legal processes. basically two trials separated in time by 36 months, three years, presided over by arguably the most powerful and most influential court on the world stage. and they resulted in one of the most influential legal precedents for the free exercise of conscience in modern times. but aside from all of its legal
significance, it really was about two families, spelled g-o-b-i-t-i-s and b-a-r-n-e-t-t- without the e. from gobitis to barnett, really represented the story of four children. three girls and one boy. now, there were other plaintiffs in the case, but you might save these children served as the poster children. in its most compelling aspects, this was really a story about children. when did it all begin? well, as was so well presented previous to this part, there were similarities with what happened with the gobitis and barnett family. and we have heard a lot about those recently, right? the events leading up, much like a gathering storm, started sometime before world war ii.
we heard already how that hitler with his tension for conquering, created an environment in europe which increased feelings of nationalism and sovereignty. those feelings started to spread and eventually reached all the way to the united states. of course, not coincidentally, a lot of young people were going to be called on to show where their loyalties lied. there was a massive difference without question between what was happening in nazi germany and what was happening in the united states. a lot of people are not aware of this, but as you heard earlier, since jehovah's witnesses were sharing concentration camps with jews and many others during this period, for many years prior to world war ii, they had reported on what was going on in germany and the concentration camps. it came out in their publications, which are printed
into the millions of copies in many languages, but of course, that information was not of note at the time. aside from these very significant differences between what was happening in the u.s. and europe, there was a common element that was common pretty much among all nations at that time, and even today, a salute. a pledge of allegiance. of course, we know that this picture is not germany. that is the united states. and of course, well jehovah's witnesses believe that being a good citizen was part of their christian responsibility, he felt that allegiance belonged only to the creator. since nationalism began to spike in the lead up to world war ii, this was about to create a real problem. in 1935, a witness by the name of carlton nichols, in massachusetts, became one of the first witnesses to be expelled
from school for not saluting the flag. and the story made headlines in the media. you might want to call that lightning strike number one. now, the associated press because it had reached a pretty high level of visibility in the media, they wanted to get a comment from jones, judge joseph rutherford, who was a prominent member of the governing body of jehovah's witnesses at the time. here is an actual recording of what he said in answer to the associated press about what has happened to carlton nichols. the saluting of the flag is making it an image to the power for which one looks for salvation. the attempt to compel children >> the saluting of the flag is making it an image to the power for which one looks for salvation. the attempt to compel children to salute the flag is positively wrong. if any person desires to salute a flag and does so, that is his decision and no one can object.
but it means much to one who has consecrated himself to do the will of god. it means much. really, it was up to each individual to decide what their conscience would permit in terms of a salute. lightning was about to strike twice. as emphasis on the flag salute was gaining momentum, 20 and 1935, billy and lillian gobitis were also bound to become the focus of intense pressure. but first, gp a little background behind the >> william, lillian and bill were born just two years apart, the oldest of the gobitis family, where they grew up in pennsylvania near a quote mining area, similar to this one a few miles away. after lillian's dad, walter, had been killed in a mining accident, they decided to earn a living by opening a store.
they called it economy groceries. a lot of immigrants lived in town and the homemade sausage were a big hit. during the depression years, many would buy on credit. of course, in minersville, as in many schools around the u.s the flag salute was gaining popularity as a way to teach children, especially immigrants, loyalty to the country. but as rutherford explained in his comment to the associated press, jehovah's witnesses are not quite see it that way. they viewed about of allegiance to a flag akin to an act of worship, so children of jehovah's witnesses began refusing to salute the flag in school. by bedtime rutherford made those comments in 1935, little billy was already in the fifth grade and lillian in the 7th grade.
not long after, in early november of the same year, billy decided on his own not to say the salute. the next day, my mom lillian decided to do the same. so what happened next? >> we are thinking, who better to help us tell the story than a member of the gobitis family. i would like to introduce with me to the platform judy gobitis, daughter of lillian gobitis. judy, i have one very important question. did you try the sausage? [laughter]
judy: i just knew my grandfather could make the best steaks in the world. we tried to copy it and we never could copy it. robert: very good. it is great to have you. thank you for coming all the way to jamestown. judy: my privilege. robert: this next slide, judy, sort of illustrates the point that once billy, your uncle, and lillian, your mom, made that decision, it was really just the beginning, was in it, of a long journey? i thought it would be nice to hear from your mom in an interview that she gave some years ago about how this all happened at school. you are both expelled at the same time? >> yes, i was in seven and he was in five. >> and tell me about what you know about. he would not salute. >> he said, he came home one day and said, i stopped saluting. >> i stopped saluting? >> yes. >> kind of a declaration of
pride? >> yes, yes. he said, the teacher try to put up my arm, but i held onto my pocket so she could not put up my arm. and i thought, oh, my goodness. i was kind of a chicken before that, so the next day, i went to the teacher and said, and i explained what i was going to do and why, and i was prepared. she said, lillian, you are a dear child, but when the classic -- class saw it, they were so angry. >> at you? >> at me, and when i came to school, they said, there goes jehovah, and the pebbles were flying. i didn't care. >> you never were moved to cry? >> no. [laughter] absolutely not.
i guess i was a little tough. i don't know. >> well, that was really nice, right? [applause] robert: so your mom is quite a character. judy: she was, and she just truly loved being in school she was on the honor roll to read -- loved being in school. she was on the honor roll, and she was class president and she was very popular. she knew once she did this stance, everything would change. and her whole life was going to make a difference. she was making a significant crossover. robert: of course, when she made that decision, she had to write a letter to the school explaining her position in a respectful way. maybe you could read that on the screen? judy: these are reasons for not saluting the flag, the constitution of the united states is based upon religious freedom. according to the dictates of my conscience, based on the bible, i must give full allegiance to
jehovah god. jehovah is my god and the bible is my creed. i try my best to obey the creator. robert: ok. so it is clear from that, it really was a religious basis. she was not doing that as an act of civil disobedience. judy: absolutely not. she always respected the flag and what it stood for, but it was simply the act of saluting that her conscious would not allow. robert: takes a lot of courage. we saw this picture, and i saw it on the pbs trailer on the program. do you have information on what this is? judy: this girl in red is uncle bill's oldest daughter. robert: so this is many years later but it looks again runs in -- looks like it runs in the family. interesting. when she made that decision on november 6, someone else made a decision on the same day. what was that? judy: the minersville school had no rule requiring the students to salute, but that day, the school board made one.
robert: so this is what it said, that refusal to salute the flag will be regarded as an act of insubordination and shall be dealt with accordingly. is that what happens? judy: exactly. robert: ok. so basically she was expelled from school, and the reality of it was actually that there were many other witnesses at the same time that were being expelled. the media took note of that fact. not only were kids expelled, but the parents were being fined. some are actually being arrested for truancy because their kids are not attending school. of course, they were not attending because they were expelled, but you know how that goes, right? there are a few clippings. the question is, what did your mom and the other witness kids do about their education? judy: they were required to have an official educated teacher, so they set up their own schools and lillian and billy went to the school 30 miles away.
and walter, my grandfather, turned the delivery truck into a school bus so people opened up their homes for them. robert: here is the delivery bus, ok? so it was a store produce van that turned into a delivery bus, and there are some of the kids in the school. here are other classes that they had throughout that period. not only were kids being expelled, but teachers who were witnesses that did not want to lead the flag salute for the class are also been fired. judy: yes, they were. robert: of course, they were a teacher in one of these schools, right? so it was ready widespread. quite a few students went through this. in february, 1938, that is when your grandfather, your mom's dad, went to federal court in philadelphia, arguing the school board had violated his children's rights of religious first amendment belief and free speech. the school superintendent that was mentioned by the bardi santos, strongly supported
mandatory saluting, and there was a little extra and she had with one of the judges. judy: yes, he said to the judge, these children have been indoctrinated, they did not think of this by themselves, but the judge said i believe they are sincere. i have watched them and i believe they are sincere. robert: that was very important, the fact that they were not coerced by their parents into making this decision. very interesting. that brings up an interesting period in this run-up, like a storm, there was this quiet or hopeful period. when they were winning, they won two significant court cases in their favor, but in reality, the storm was far from over, wasn't it? so what happened on june 3, 1940? judy: that is when the supreme court issued a ruling regarding the family. robert: let's hear your mom tell what happened. >> so one day, mother and i were
working in the kitchen, and billy and dad were downstairs in the store working, and there was a newscast in washington in this case, and there was the ruling of 8-1 against jehovah's witnesses. >> you first heard about that on the radio? >> yes. >> go ahead. >> we could not believe it. we ran downstairs to the store and told bill and dad. they were equally aghast. and after that, that is when it was open season on jehovah's witnesses. now let's go get them. judy: that is what happened. robert: that is what happened, right? so they lost the case. there was one newspaper clipping according that event. so when that happens, the rest
of the storm was coming, you might say, right? they were in the eye but the rest was coming. how bad did things get between the time that gobitis was rolled -- ruled on and until barnett came along when the court reversed itself? this one quote, judy, from shawn peters, what did he say? judy: he said it was an unprecedented outbreak of religious persecution. most people subsequently have recognized it as the worst outbreak of religious persecution of the united states in the 20th century. both my mom lillian and her dad spent time in jail during that period. robert: interesting. how old was she? >> she was like 11. -- judy: she was like people were 11. outraged that they would take a little girl and other little kids in jail. robert: well, she made friends. judy: yes, she made lifelong friends. robert: amazing really when you think about it.
she was being interviewed by phil donahue and those other clips. let's hear phil donahue describe what that was like. >> we are at war. americans are dying in the pacific european theater. and these little you know what would not salute the flag. you cannot overstate the contempt, the loathing that we had for these people. and when the supremes said you have got to salute, and expelled kids who would not, over 1000 injuries. robert: it was serious. judy: yes. robert: thank you, judy, for spending the time to give us this little perspective on this story of your family. we appreciate it. judy: thank you. [applause] robert: well, after every
storm, there is a calm. some time would pass before the situation would change for jehovah's witnesses, but it did come, almost exactly three years later. something remarkable happened to bring that about. there were strong indications, and we heard it in the presentation, that the court was changing its position on the flag salute. this meant that the majority might actually be in favor of a reversal if there was a new trial. that opportunity came in early 1942 when the barnett kids were expelled from school, and marie will be speaking about it later. their case was heard by the supreme court in 1943. by that time, public opinion and sentiment had changed and shifted to some extent in their favor. in addition, chief justice stone and jackson, and 4 other judges agreed in a ruling of 6-3 at the conscience of these children should be respected.
an attorney who specialized in first constitutional law -- first amendment constitutional law, expressed the turnaround this way -- >> so three years later, when the court takes this breath and it takes the dramatic step of reversing itself and say, this is not a country where you can equate patriotism with forced allegiance to the state. this is a country whose constitution and composition intellectually is unique in that you cannot equate patriotism with forced professions of allegiance. robert: so, the result is, of course, what we know in that opinion, setting the majority view, penned by robert h . jackson, part of which states no official can prescribe what should be orthodox or correct in politics, nationalism, or religion. people have a fundamental right to believe that their conscience dictates. or in the downed to earth words of phil donahue, and that is
-- phil donahue -- >> and that is their faith, and that is their right. you can worship of pet rock, if you want to, and no official, high or petty, can tell you that this is not orthodox. robert jackson. robert: well, there are important lessons to learn from all of this, aren't there? number one, young people are often underestimated, aren't they? where they often excel is in their sincerity and courage. standing up for what is right is possible, even when the odds appear overwhelming. personal integrity has its own reward. on that point, i would like to conclude with final comments from phil donahue, who would have liked to have been here but was unable to. >> to think that the supremes came down from high-end took the
two decisions, and they went like this to the nation, stop right there. and they essentially, robert jackson, looked over that bench, and he looked at those kids and he said, you, this is what the decision means, you obey your parents. i mean, what is american to you? this is just one reason why i am a proud american. and why i respect the witnesses, not only for their courage, but what they did for all of us. robert: thanks for listening. we hope you enjoy this presentation from gobitis to barnett. [applause] you are watching
american history tv, 48 hours of programming on american history every weekend on c-span3. follow us on twitter at c-span history for information on our schedule and to keep up with the latest history news. panhistory for more information on our schedule and to keep up with the latest history news. the university of missouri's candor institute on constitutional democracy host the conversation on the history of national security whistleblowing in the u.s. -- andin it the began around the time of the 1917 espionage act, and increased during the vietnam war, and was a natural byproduct of long-term military engagements and increase state secrets. the candor institute's chair jay sexton participated in the discussion. jay: