Speeches That Made History: Red Skelton Teaches the Pledge of Allegiance

by Derrick G. Jeter

Richard “Red” Skelton was, for more than a quarter-century, America’s court jester. Clowning was in his blood. Born on July 18, 1913, in the small town of Vincennes, Indiana, his father, who died a couple of months before, was a clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. Stepping into his father’s over-sized shoes when he was older, Red worked as a clown in the same circus. His circus antics led to acting, singing, and performing as a comedian in medicine and minstrel shows, and onboard a riverboat. In 1936 he became a vaudeville star on Broadway. He stared in at least twenty-three movies, had a hit radio variety show and an award-winning television comedy hour. Not only was Skelton a gifted comedian, he was also a gifted painter of clowns, just like his comic father.

On January 14, 1969, as thousands of American households tuned into to the hilarity of one of his many characters—Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddy the Freeloader, and Cauliflower McPugg—they unexpectedly received a lasting lesson in civics. On this evening, instead another skit Skelton gave a “speech,” based on a lesson learned from one of his teachers, Mr. Lasswell.

This speech serves as proof that the influence of good teachers and good teaching endures for a lifetime. Speaking to a group of children on his TV program, “The Red Skelton Show,” Skelton teaches another generation of schoolchildren the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The language used in explaining the Pledge is simple, but not simplistic; it clarifies and challenges. The language is respectful of the children’s intelligence and of the Pledges solemnity. It takes nothing away from the simple language of the Pledge itself, nor adds undue linguistic flourishes.

In the conclusion, Skelton mentions the addition of the phrase “under God,” which occurred on June 14, 1954, on Flag Day. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said at the time: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

By linking the Pledge with a prayer, and concluding the speech with a question, Skelton causes the listener to contemplate the implications of the question. He also places the Pledge on the same plane as a prayer. The one expresses dependence on and reverence to God; the other expresses independence from a foreign banner, while inciting reverence for the banner that represents the freedom of America.

Here is the complete speech.

. . . Getting back to school, I remember a teacher that I had. Now I only went, I went through the seventh grade. I left home when I was 10 years old because I was hungry. And . . . this is true. I worked in the summer and went to school in the winter. But, I had this one teacher, he was the principal of the Harrison School, in Vincennes, Indiana. To me, this was the greatest teacher, a real sage . . . of my time, anyhow. He had such wisdom. We were all reciting the Pledge of Allegiance one day, and he walked over. This little old teacher. . . . Mr. Lasswell was his name. He said: “I’ve been listening to you boys and girls recite the Pledge of Allegiance all semester and it seems as though it is becoming monotonous to you. If I may, may I recite it and try to explain to you the meaning of each word?”

I—Me. An individual. A committee of one.

Pledge—Dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity.

Allegiance—My love and my devotion.

To the Flag—Our standard, Old Glory. A symbol of freedom. Wherever she waves there is respect, because your loyalty has given her a dignity that shouts: Freedom is everybody’s job.

Of the United—That means that we have all come together.

States of America—Individual communities that have united into forty-eight great states. Forty-eight individual communities with pride and dignity and purpose. All divided with imaginary boundaries, yet united to a common purpose, and that is love of country.

And to the Republic—Republic . . . a state in which sovereign power is invested in representatives chosen by the people to govern. And government is the people; and it’s from the people to the leaders, not from the leaders to the people.

For Which It Stands; One Nation—One Nation . . . meaning, so blessed by God.

Indivisible—Incapable of being divided.

With Liberty—Which is Freedom . . . the right of power to live one’s own life, without threats, fear, or some sore of retaliation.

And Justice—The principle, or qualities, of dealing fairly with others.

For All—For All . . . which means boys and girls, it’s as much your country as it is mine.

And now, boys and girls, let me hear you recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands; one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country, and two words have been added to the Pledge of Allegiance: Under God. Wouldn’t it be a pity if someone said that it is a prayer, and that would be eliminated from schools, too?

It would be a pity indeed.