On Oct. 28, 1935, Alma Hering showed up at her fifth grade classroom at Lincoln School in Secaucus — sitting quietly, arms crossed. To the outside observer she looked like the model schoolgirl. But in fact, she was staging a protest that would occasion a special meeting of the Secaucus Board of Education — and a story in the New York Times – a little over 85 years ago.
Alma’s beef? She did not want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a stance that got her suspended from school.
Her reason? She and her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and saluting emblems like the flag was against their religion.
Alma, 11, told the Times in a story dated Oct. 29, 1935 that the decision about saluting the flag was not the result of her parents’ coaching but of her own reading. She described her religion as “undemoninational.”
“I’m very proud to be an American but not to the point of making someone recite the pledge.” —Tom Troyer
“Good question,” said Secaucus school board member Tom Troyer recently. “I guess we couldn’t do anything about it. We have to give them religious freedoms.”
That said, Troyer added, “Not to sound like John Wayne or anything, I’m very proud to be an American — but not to the point of making someone recite the pledge.”
Alma Hering staged her one-girl insurrection against the backdrop of social upheaval — right after the Great Depression, months before a debilitating recession, and just as a dictator and genocidal madman named Adolph Hitler was coming to power in Europe.
The chain of events was triggered when Alma’s teacher, Mrs. Anton Rizzi, alerted the principal, who in turn notified the Board of Education. The board suspended Alma and ordered a public hearing.
The Times reported that at the hearing on Oct. 29, Rizzi testified that Alma had told her that her mother had instructed her not to salute the flag or sing patriotic songs. The board decided that Alma had violated a 1932 state law that required every child to swear allegiance to the American flag.
According to the Times, “Gerard A. Mara, a member of the board and former post commander of the American Legion, offered a resolution, which was adopted unanimously that the supervising principal of the Secaucus School make an investigation of the attitude of local children in regard to the United States Government, the Constitution and American institutions. The resolution said children and others in the community had been “approached by agents of forces inimical to the government.’”
Secaucus is noted for its many venerable families who have lived in town for generations. Secaucus librarian Jenifer May has two Herings in her family: Her grandmother, Ruth Hering Berardo, and her great aunt, Doris Hering Manzo. At a recent family gathering, she asked them if they remembered the Alma Hering incident. She reported that both women had heard the story but were too young when it happened to remember much about it.
Jenifer’s relatives aren’t even sure if they are related to Alma Hering, and none of them knew her ultimate fate after she was drubbed from school that fateful fall.
However, a Time Magazine story from November of 1935 reported that many children of Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to say the pledge, and this got them into trouble because of patriotism laws sweeping the nation. Time explained, “Strictly literal-minded, they believe that Biblical prophecies govern man’s fate, that formalized religion, financiers, politicians and such emblems as the U. S. flag are agents of Lucifer, who is grooming himself for a terrific last-ditch fight with Jehovah.”
The story also reported that Alma, along with her sister Vivian, was ultimately expelled from school.
Kate Rounds can be reached at email@example.com.