American Values and Reality

Esther Popel

Esther Popel (Dickinson Archives)

Esther Popel’s “Flag Salute” was so impactful it was printed in The Crisis twice. The first time it was published followed the lynching of a young black man in 1934. The second followed the US Senate’s failure to pass an anti-lynching bill to address the ongoing problem. Popel’s poem highlighted the gross injustice and hypocrisy of the time. She paralleled the Pledge of Allegiance with the gruesome details of the lynching, separating it by line. As the poem progressed, it became increasingly obvious that the Pledge of Allegiance did not accurately reflect African American’s reality. 

Her poem is powerful because she called out the bigotry and injustice towards African Americans so perfectly. The Pledge of Allegiance praises America for being one indivisible nation, “With liberty and justice for all,” but its white citizens did not uphold the very values they pledged to live by. Instead, they made a “spectacle” of lynching their fellow citizens. She described men, women, and children gathering around the young black man’s hanged body as if it was a source of entertainment and satisfaction for them. Perhaps the most callous and apathetic part was Popel’s description of the white people taking pieces of rope and teeth from the boy’s lifeless body as “souvenirs.”

Popel’s writing style here was similar to Frederick Douglass’s in his “Fifth of July” speech. Just as Douglass called out white Americans for celebrating their liberty on the Fourth of July, Popel called into question white American’s commitment to equality. Popel was being ironic when she referred to the boy who lynched his fellow African American citizen as “patriotic.” She did so perhaps to make white Americans feel ashamed of their unjust practices, think about what true patriotism is, and question the very notion that they ever were committed to ensuring “liberty and justice for all.”

By: Jordyn Ney, June 2021