by Max Brantley
Down in Arkansas in 1919 the legislature passed a law saying you cannot do this and that and the other to the flag. Essentially, you cannot show disrespect for the flag. In 1941, 6 months before Pearl Harbor, old Joe Johnson, who lived out in Saint Joe up in the Ozark Mountains, ran afoul of that law. I guess Saint Joe has maybe 300 people. The county seat was Marshall, AR. The woman who dispensed commodities to poor people at the courthouse had heard that there were a bunch of those Jehovah's Witnesses out at Saint Joe. Not only did they not believe like most good Christians, the Bible and their religious training was more important to them than the flag of the United States. Joe had a wife and eight children. And he goes into Marshall as he does on the first day of each month to get his commodities to feed his children.
Now, you have to understand Saint Joe in that era of 1941, you have to understand the unspeakable poverty the people of the mountains lived in. So Mrs. Who Shall Remain Nameless, even though it was 1941—I am sure she is long since departed—says to Joe Johnson, ``We hear you have been drawing commodities for kids you ain't got.'' Joe says,
``That's not true. I've got eight children. You're welcome to come out and see.'' She accepts that, and she says, ``We also understand that you belong to a sect called Jehovah's Witnesses.'' He said, ``That's
correct.'' ``And we understand that you Jehovah's Witnesses don't respect our flag. And if you are going to draw commodities, I want you to stand up there and salute that flag.'' Joe says, ``I ain't going to do it. The Bible tells me that I don't salute any earthly thing except the Bible. That's my religious teaching.''
There were quite a few people in that office, and Joe went ahead to make a speech. And during the course of his speech somebody testified at his trial that he had touched the flag. That was enough to find him guilty of disrespecting Old Glory. So they fined Joe $50 and gave him 24 hours in jail. Then Joe took it to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and while it was on appeal, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. So Joe's conviction was upheld on a vote of 6 to 1.
I remember well the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court—his son was a very dear friend of mine—dissented. He dissented, saying you cannot have a law like this. You cannot say that Joe has to choose a flag over his religion. He cited Oliver Wendell Holmes that the country must fight every effort to check the expression of loathsome opinions, unless they so threaten the country they had to be stopped to save it.
``The fact remains,'' Justice Smith wrote, ``that we're engaged in a war not only of men, machines and materials but in a contest wherein liberty may be lost if we succumb to the ideologies of those who enforce obedience through fear and who would write loyalty with a bayonet. If ignorance were a legal crime, this judgment would be
just,'' he said. ``The suspicions and hatreds of Salem have ceased. Neighbor no longer inveighs against neighbor through the fear of the evil eye.''
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”