Witness to a Lynch Mob
October 19, 2001
On Monday, October 15, the school board of Madison, Wisconsin, held an open forum to discuss its controversial vote the week before.
In that vote, it had instructed the public schools to forgo having students recite the pledge of allegiance and to offer only an instrumental rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in the classrooms.
This decision became a bloody shirt for talk radio hosts and rightwing church groups to wave around.
As I walked in the school, I saw a VFW troupe in full regalia and people with signs saying "God Bless America." There were other people holding signs affirming the separation of church and state, but they were outnumbered.
And so was I.
I couldn't get into the crowded auditorium, so I moved out into the cafeteria with the overflow.
Through the sound system, we heard the meeting begin.
All at once, people in full throat were saying the pledge of allegiance. Someone inside the auditorium got it going, and almost everyone in the cafeteria rose to recite it, some with hands over their hearts.
When the pledge ended, I could hear chants of "USA, USA," and I felt like I was at the Scopes Trial.
More than 200 people had signed up to talk for three minutes each, and the school board decided to let students go first.
A homeschooler from Illinois denounced the decision as unpatriotic.
A girl from Mt. Horeb, a town twenty miles away, said she was tired of having her teachers tell her what to do, like telling her she should have sex before marriage.
A few students did support the board, and they were greeted by general tut-tutting in the cafeteria.
Three high school boys with short hair walked by wearing stencilled shirts with the words "Pro-Patriotism" and "Anti-Liberal" in big type on the front, and the pledge in small type. On the back was a picture of Osama bin Laden in a circle with a line drawn through him and the words: "Kill Osama bin Laden."
When it was the adults' turn at the mike, most of the speakers opposed the board, some with a great deal of vitriol.
One called the board members "liberal totalitarians."
Several said the board members should resign or be recalled.
Another said, "You should not be recalled. You should be tried for treason!"
Still another described the city as "The People's Republic of Madison," and called the board members a bunch of "arrogant, elitist, heavy-handed, radical leftovers of the Vietnam era, who in your great zeal to protect the minority have stifled the expression of the majority."
That one brought the cafeteria crowd to its feet.
One man countered the criticism that the anthem was militaristic by saying he's sung the anthem thousands of times "but I never felt the urge to conquer my neighbor's lawn or grab their chairs."
Another said that the problem wasn't just the lack of patriotism; it was the lack of discipline. We need to get that discipline back, he said, recalling with approval how one of his teachers "grabbed me by the neck and put me up to the locker."
One Vietnam War veteran said he was proud to wear the uniform, and concluded: "God and America are inseparable."
Many speakers did support the board's decision, and raised the crucial points about separating church and state, about the tyranny of the majority, and about the dangers of blind patriotism.
But the die had been cast.
The board was under enormous pressure all week to back down.
It had received death threats: One person wrote that the hijackers should have flown their planes not into the World Trade Center but into the Madison School Board administration building.
It was being blackmailed economically: Business groups were cancelling their conventions in Madison.
Universities in other states were banning the school board from recruiting teachers on their campuses.
The governor of Wisconsin called the board members to urge them to change their minds.
And as the meeting was going on, a group was organizing to recall the school board members in the room right next to the cafeteria.
In the wee hours of the morning, the board finally capitulated, voting 6-to-1 to have Madison public school students recite the pledge or sing the national anthem on a daily basis.
The power of the mob had prevailed.
A few days later, I bumped into a neighbor of mine whom I had seen at the meeting shaking his head in horror. I asked him what he made of it all.
"I thought I was in Nazi Germany," he said.