Happy Flag Day. This not-quite-a-holiday in honor of Old Glory probably won’t garner much attention from the culture-makers at Google. Another banner, however, recently got the full doodle treatment. The rainbow flag was digitally flying around the world on June 2 to honor the late Gilbert Baker, the so-called “gay Betsy Ross,” on what would have been his sixty-sixth birthday. On the previous day, President Trump had announced in the Rose Garden that the United States was walking away from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. I expect somewhere on the planet an Earth Flag was flown at half-mast. These two stateless flags—and the varying degrees of honor given to the men behind them—show us which way the cultural winds are blowing.
Both banners fall into the category of things that everybody thinks they could have thought of themselves, but didn’t. The person who did think of the Earth Flag, a simple image of our planet on a blue background, was John McConnell, a charismatic peace activist who frequented the halls of the United Nations from the 1950s through the 1990s. As biographer Robert Weir details in Peace, Justice, Care of Earth, McConnell was inspired by the images coming from the U.S. space program. He created the flag and then tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Nixon to send it to the moon. The flag made its public debut in Central Park at the 1969 “Moon Watch” celebration. Before Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind,” McConnell, the son of a traveling preacher prominent in early Pentecostal circles, presented a large version to the National Council of Churches. Smaller versions were distributed among the crowd.
McConnell’s work would gain something like cult status among its admirers, finding its way to both poles and even into space aboard the International Space Station. Though this labor of love was never a money-maker, thousands of Earth Flags were sold over the decades, and to this day, if you show up at an environmental rally, you are bound to see one flapping in the breeze.
Baker’s more colorful creation debuted in 1978 at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. As a friend of Baker’s summarizes in a PBS documentary, the rainbow flag “eclipsed any other uses of the rainbow and everybody now, really, connects that to the gay and lesbian movement.” Regrettably, that assessment is likely correct, and Sunday School teachers the world over squirm a bit when it comes time to conclude the story of Noah’s ark.
Unlike McConnell, Baker never copyrighted his design, but it became the centerpiece of his career. Rainbow flags were commissioned for the 1984 Democratic National Convention; a mile-long version graced a New York parade on the flag’s 25th anniversary; and an even bigger version, sponsored by Absolut Vodka, appeared in Key West in 2003. President Obama invited Baker to the White House in 2016, and after he died unexpectedly on March 31 of this year, Baker was honored with a memorial event at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. He will be feted again today, with a Flag Day rally in the Stonewall neighborhood of New York.
Unlike Baker, who was propelled by the LGBT gale to minor celebrity and posthumous acclaim, McConnell found himself caught in crosscurrents. He was an imperfect fit with the environmental movement, for which his flag became a second-tier symbol. For starters, his Christian faith was a driving force behind his activism. (McConnell met his wife, Anna, at a charismatic prayer meeting in Brooklyn, to which a certain Lutheran pastor and fellow peacenik named Richard John Neuhaus had directed him.) But old-time religion was out of fashion among the greens, and the McConnells’ vision of world peace also included peace in the womb. Most problematic, McConnell took major issue with Earth Day, the nationwide protest on April 22, 1970 that galvanized a movement.
McConnell had his own vision for “Earth Day.” In fact, he had already spearheaded a spring equinox celebration with that name, with the support of the mayor of San Francisco. It preceded the larger April event, which had been billed originally as the “Environmental Teach-In.” McConnell would contend to his dying day that the organizers of that effort stole the name “Earth Day” when he refused to lend it to their cause. McConnell’s version of Earth Day still had a sizeable impact, though, earning congressional and presidential proclamations in the 1970s, as well as long-term support at the highest levels of the United Nations.
McConnell’s fondness for the UN and adherence to pacifism probably limited his influence among his fellow believers, as Pentecostalism grew increasingly nationalistic and militaristic during his lifetime. His own independent nature and eccentricities also contributed to his isolation from any of the broader movements with which he shared a partial affinity.
Despite a fascinating life that put him in contact with Dwight Eisenhower, UN Secretary General U Thant, and Senator Mark Hatfield, among many other notables, McConnell’s death in 2012 at the age of 97 went unnoticed except by a few stalwart supporters (such as Regent University professor John Munday, who had helped to collect McConnell’s works into a book). A White House reception and a worldwide Google doodle were never in the cards. Instead, I was the last person to profile McConnell, for a small online outlet. He and Anna were living in a Christian retirement community in Denver, but the unit was easy to find. You just had to look for the Earth Flag by the door. Long may it wave.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School and the steward of a vintage Earth Flag.