New Orleans During this year’s US Independence Day, I was in London speaking to ACORN members there and answering questions, following a screening of the The Organizer, about ACORN history among other things. I was asked whether ACORN, at the national or international level, used patriotism as an organizing tool or principle. The question surprised me. It was unusual and not one for which I had a glib and practiced response. In a moment’s reflection, I answered, “No, we did not.” My answer was the truth, and I have no idea what answer the questioner had hoped I would give. Other questions followed, but that one has stuck with me.
We didn’t use patriotism as an organizing tool, but not because that was a matter of policy. Now, working in fifteen countries, it would be ridiculous and divisive. Then, working only in America, the project itself was making the US a better country and one that aligned its reality for the majority with its democratic claims and principles. The members were either “born in the USA”, as Bruce Springsteen sang, or had chosen to come here and were fighting to be part of the country. We assumed patriotism, more than we wore it like a t-shirt.
Thinking back, as children of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War, the flag was a contested symbol. Although many ACORN meetings were opened with prayer, and many churches and union halls where we met displayed state and US flags, the ACORN meeting order did not include the Pledge of Allegiance, as everyone of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO meetings did during all the years that I was a delegate and officer there. When we adopted a flag for ACORN, we always displayed it, but few offices owned a US flag. It just wasn’t part of our practice.
Yet, we were patriotic, as children of public schools and morning assemblies, pledges, and flag raising. I was an Eagle Scout who could recite the Gettysburg Address and more. We took state mottos as our own, including “The People Shall Rule” from Arkansas, because it expressed the vision of America we wanted to seize as our own of majority rule in a real democracy.
When accused by conservative demagogues of being “un-American”, we pushed back hard, first when it was a state legislator from Pine Bluff, and later whenever it arose. We gave no quarter. Former ACORN president Mildred Brown has a great line in the film about “some people called us Communists” but, essentially, we pushed on, water off a duck’s back, militant in our pursuit of change in America. The film includes my reply to then Fox News star Megan Kelley, where in exasperation I reply to one of her charges that the failure to tolerate dissent and to “take away the rights of anyone…is not the American way.”
An op-ed in the Times, argues that the “left must reclaim patriotism.” I guess, thinking about this more, it never occurred to me that we had surrendered patriotism. In all of the countries where we work, our members want to make the countries better for themselves and their children. Having planted our feet in the ground against every “love it or leave it” charge and the false flag flyers, the professor has a point that maybe, in our quest to make the country better, we have allowed more space and voice to the “my country right or wrong” kneejerk crowd? The harder question to answer is how we can be both critic and colleague to our countryman while always pushing the country to be better, but fighting for change is the job for real patriots more than reciting the pledge and waving the stars and stripes.