The independent news organization of Duke University

A Son of Liberty

Will Phillips is the man—though technically, he is not quite a man yet.

Phillips is only 10 years old and spends much of his week in a fifth grade class in West Fork Elementary School in Arkansas. Phillips is just starting to get national attention for something that he is not doing. The elementary school student refuses to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It has nothing to do with the phrase “under God,” on which the debate about the Pledge usually centers. Phillps won’t make an oath to the flag of his country until there is liberty and justice for all homosexuals in the U.S.

And he’s not taking his stance lightly. A substitute teacher left Phillips alone for a few days, but eventually confronted him for not reciting the Pledge. Like any good child raised in the American tradition, Phillips called forth the spirits of Thomas Payne, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. Phillips told CNN how he responded that day in the classroom.

“I eventually, very solemnly, with a little bit of malice in my voice, said, ‘Ma’am, with all due respect, you can go jump off a bridge.’”

As the child retold the story, Phillips’s father placed his head in his hands. The parents were called into the office to meet with the principal. But Phillips’s candor and passion convinced his parents that the kid was not simply acting out. Linda Phillips, Will’s mother, went home and started twittering. And behold! The power of social networking swept Phillips into the national media maelstrom.

What was once a personal stand in a small classroom has become a symbol of civil rights action for the entire country. The increased media attention has also brought Phillips’ actions into the spotlight at his school. He told CNN that his fellow students have assumed that he is homosexual. “In the halls and the cafeteria, I am repeatedly called a gaywad,” Phillips said. When asked by CNN what a “gaywad” was, he responded, “I really don’t know. It’s a discriminatory name for homosexuals.”

But why is Phillips making a stand in the form of not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Will wants to be a lawyer, and he spent a weekend taking a deeper look at the words he was expected to recite in school. “I looked at the end, and it said with liberty and justice for all, and there really isn’t liberty and justice for all…. Gays and lesbians can’t marry, there’s still a lot of racism and sexism in the world.” Will said that he knows a lot of homosexuals himself, and he doesn’t think it’s fair that they do not have the same rights as everyone else.

Very well-spoken, confident, inquisitive, thoughtful, passionate and only 10 years old, Will Phillips is making the type of stand his forefathers would be proud of. It wasn’t easy for the young ruffians of the American colonies to revolt against the King—when a child named Andrew Jackson refused to kiss the boots of a British soldier, he received a permanent scar for his stand. It wasn’t smooth going for the young men and women who participated in sit-ins in segregated shops—when a group of four college students sat at a whites only counter in a Greensboro, N.C. Woolworth’s only a few miles away from Duke, they had to withstand the protests of white patrons.

Throughout America’s history, the push for civil rights has had its supporters and its detractors. The case of Will Phillips will be no different. There are those who believe the Pledge should be recited no matter what, and there are others who believe that the Pledge is like any other instrument of the American system, a tool to be used to better society through debate and demonstration. The delegates to the Continental Congress were able to overcome their expected sense of duty and obedience to the King to construct a separate society better representing the rights of the colonists. Our government has passed numerous amendments to the Constitution, providing a variety of disenfranchised groups with the rights we all should have.

Phillips is right. Homosexuals remain significantly disenfranchised in this country. The Oct. 2 New York Times article, “The High Price of Being a Gay Couple,” measures the financial costs of homosexual couples to often be hundreds of thousands of dollars more expensive than the costs of heterosexual couples. And underlying the economics is a moral injustice denying liberty and justice for everyone. Marriage in this country is weaker today because it is a privilege of the dominant and not a right shared by all.

When the interview wrapped up, Phillips’ father nudged him, trying to get Phillips to say thank you. But Phillips confidently nodded, not saying a word. In an unjust world, the young activist had no one to thank.

A Son of Liberty was born.

Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. His column runs every Wednesday.


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