• How Americans are celebrating Flag Day  — when the flag itself is more political than ever

    By: USA Today

    Updated:

    Today, June 14, is Flag Day — a celebration of the American flag at a time when few can agree on how to properly respect it. 

    The flag has grown unusually political over the last year: President Trump has frequently expounded on the need to "stand proudly for the national anthem," condemning NFL players who choose to kneel in protest. To some, the flag stands for the freedom of open expression; to others, it represents the sacrifice of military service.  

    The flag's history is as old as the country's. Though not officially a federal holiday, Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the famous stars and stripes by the Continental Congress in 1777.

    Informal celebrations date to the mid-1800s, and the holiday was established by a proclamation from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and formalized by an Act of Congress in 1949. Every year, it's marked by celebrations and parades in towns across the country. 

    Nearly 250 years after the nation's founding, Americans continue to see the flag as a symbol of freedom, independence and honor. For people enjoying the sunny June weather on the National Mall on Thursday morning — many visiting Washington, D.C., from around the country — questions about the flag brought a variety of uniquely patriotic answers.

    "Sacrifice," said Teresa Hale, who was visiting from Missouri with her husband, when asked about the flag's meaning. "Young men and women who have brought us where  we are today."

    More: Stars & Stripes: Basic etiquette for the American flag

    Phil Steifel, of Virginia Beach, sat outside the White House while his wife and grandchildren toured inside. "I have a lot of ancestors who founded this country, so it means a lot to me," he said.

    "Everything. Everything," said Ray Hudgens, who was visiting from Arizona. His wife, Judith, echoed that sentiment: "Everything."

    But the flag, and how Americans should honor it — particularly during the national anthem — is a hotly controversial political subject as well as a symbol of patriotism. 

    Trump last week canceled a planned visit from the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles after several players said they would not attend. The president's statement argued that the Eagles "disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem" and promised to hold a celebration of the flag in place of the team visit. 

    On the National Mall, answers to questions about how to respect the American flag plainly reflected political divides. 

    "He’s using the flag to promote causes that really don’t promote what the flag stands for," said Jenise Babcock of Kentucky. "Since when is kneeling a sign of disrespect? Is it a sign of disrespect to kneel in church every Sunday?"

    Others vehemently disagreed. "Stand for it, salute it, pay attention to it," Ray Hudgens said. "No kneeling at football games or anything else."

    Hannah Lemon,17, who grew up in a military family and has lived all over the world, had a unique perspective. Sitting near the Washington Monument, she remembered a moment from when she lived in Bahrain with her parents. 

    "It was heartbreaking to hear that people were mistreating the flag by stepping on it," she said, referring to anti-U.S. demonstrations. "So many people have passed away to protect what we have today."

    Lemon's friend Chera Broadnax, 18, also the daughter of service members, doesn't believe everyone needs to respect the flag in the same way Trump does.

    But it still deserves respect, she said, "for people who came before us, and people who will come after us."

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